‘Les Misérables’ and the Law of God

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is again a topic of conversation, and for good reason.

Christians, in particular, have rightly celebrated the portrayal of the beauty of mercy and grace in this moving 150-year-old tale. Most of the theological analyses have contrasted Javert, the law-obsessed Inspector, with Valjean, the grace-transformed thief.

And while much of this analysis has been spot-on, it’s important that a central biblical and theological reality not get lost. Let me put it this way: Many people regard Javert as the consummate legalist, the embodiment of a single-minded preoccupation with perfect obedience to God’s righteous Law. The problem is this: he’s not.

Which Law?

Make no mistake, Javert is a legalist, from his back teeth to his little toe. But the law that forms his fixation is not the Law of God, the Law of Moses, or the Law of Christ. It is law, for sure, but it is 19th-century French law, draped in a veneer of religiosity, but bearing only a passing resemblance to anything biblical.

The apostle Paul says that God’s Law is holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12). But there is nothing holy about condemning a hungry man to prison for five years for stealing bread. There’s nothing righteous about branding such a man as a dangerous criminal for the remainder of his life. There’s nothing good about a law (or law-man) obsessed with catching a parole-breaking former thief, while ignoring persistent criminals like the Thenardiers.

The law Javert loves is a bureaucratic web that entangles the poor and privileges the wealthy. The society Javert defends oppresses widows and orphans, driving them into prostitution and theft as a means of survival. Javert’s law privileges the testimony of the well-to-do over that of a shivering and defenseless woman (even as the powerful seek to satiate their lust in the seedy part of town). Javert’s law consigns the poor to a life that is nasty, brutish, and (in Fantine’s case) mercifully short.

The Subtle Seduction in Hugo’s Story

And lest this condemnation of the ruling class in Les Mis be taken as an endorsement of the “angry men” and their revolutionary ideology, let me just say that I regard the glorification of revolutionary violence as one of the central and most subtle seductions of Hugo’s story, and one that discerning Christians will recognize and reject.

Les Mis romanticizes the Revolution and the utopian radicalism it rode in on: the divinization of “the People,” the glorification of “the barricade,” the obsession with overthrowing the past and recreating the world. The “angry men” make it to “heaven” by their blood and martyrdom for the Cause and “the People,” but the real “angry men” (or rather, their predecessors in 1789) gave us the guillotine and the Temple of Reason in their quest for “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” The ancien regime was awful, but the revolutionaries were arguably worse.

What Jesus Says to Javert

Distinguishing Javert’s legalism from biblical law is of more than merely semantic interest. It can color the way that we as Christians read the Old Testament. It can perpetuate the idea that attempts to faithfully obey God’s Law are problematic and flawed from the outset, when such efforts are in fact worthwhile and commendable, provided they are done from faith in Jesus and out of confidence we’ve already been accepted by God.

Think of it this way: If Jesus (or Moses) came to Javert, he would not condemn him for his meticulous attempts to keep God’s Law; he would condemn him for neglecting God’s Law, for ignoring God’s Law, especially its weightier matters: mercy, justice, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). In other words, Javert would be condemned as a Pharisee, for that is just what he is.

But let us not forget the heart of Jesus’s condemnation of the Pharisees. He condemns the Pharisees for their law-breaking (Matthew 23:2), for their human traditions which trump God’s Law (Matthew 15:3–7), for their love of money (Luke 16:14), for oppressing the poor and the weak (Matthew 23:4), for not caring about the Law enough (for if they did, they would recognize Jesus as its fulfillment).

And let’s not forget that it’s Jesus that ups the ante on obedience in the Sermon on the Mount, calling “sin” what the supposed “lawkeepers” would have excused (lust, anger, oath-taking). All of which is to say, in keying off Les Mis, let’s not equate Javert with God’s Law or with Christian obedience (over against Christian mercy and grace). In fact, if we’re thinking biblically, Valjean is the true lawkeeper, who upholds the weightier matters, protects the weak, the poor, and the oppressed, and keeps the Great Commandments (love for God and love for neighbor) because he was bought by the grace of God (in the bishop’s silver).

Les Mis in Sunday School

I’m not saying that Les Mis doesn’t communicate the beauty of mercy. It certainly does — and does so spectacularly. Nor am I saying that Javert is not an example of everything that is wrong with humanity. In fact, this analysis shows just how pervasive the human penchant to establish false laws is. Whether it’s the traditions of the Pharisees, the ethnocentric law-boasting of the Judaizers, the bureaucratic minutiae of Javert, the over-scrupulousness of fundamentalists, or the hate crimes of the progressives, human beings love to break God’s Law by erecting our own. We are rebels, and this is what we do.

So yes, press Les Mis into use as a Sunday School illustration. Bring it out as a way to start a gospel conversation with an unbelieving coworker. But as you do, be mindful of what you’re doing. Don’t equate Javert with the Law as God intended it. Instead, try this as an exercise: Critique Javert and the society he represents on the basis of the Old Testament alone. Maybe even limit yourself to the Pentateuch.

Remind yourself that the God of all grace, the God of astounding mercy, the God of ransomed sinners reveals himself not only in Matthew and Romans, but also in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Remember that “the world we long to see” is a world in which we walk according to the Spirit and thus fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law (Romans 8:4). Remember that it would most likely be Valjean, not Javert, who would echo David’s song in Psalm 119: “Oh, how I love your law!”