Tuesday, January 8, 2013

On Forgiveness and Escaping the Past: Thoughts on Les Miserables

Pic from the Huffington Post
The past weekend Lori and I were able to see Les Miserables. My response is the same of so many others. Wow! I couldn’t help but be drawn in by the story and the songs and yes my face was wet with tears as I listened to Fantine sing of the dream she had dreamed that life had made into her hell.

This is not my first acquaintance with Victor Hugo’s story. I first met Jean Valjean not on a stage or a screen, but in the pages of a book. It was on the required reading list for my high school English class and, as was my style then, I refused to do the reading and “faked” my way through the discussion. But something strange happened one day. As I listened to the class discussion I became captivated with the story. I began reading the book and fell in love with a story that is not only powerful, but speaks to me in a different way each time I encounter it. Ever since then the story has been with me. We have seen it on stage, listened to the sound track and watched the movie. It is truly a classic.

And as so many have noticed it is a story packed with theology. I have read the reviewers who have criticized the “overly religious” aspects of the story. My only question to them is: have you read the book? Hugo had a lot to say about the politics of 19th century France, but he also had a lot to say about God and the Church. One can’t have the story of Jean Valjean without the other.

As I watched the film what caught my attention this time was the struggle between being forgiven and escaping the past. Jean Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and instead of being placed back in jail, he is given not only forgiveness, but a pair of silver candle sticks. Those candle sticks come to represent that moment in his life when he knew without a doubt that he was forgiven and that he could be different. And while the rest of the silver disappears from the story, it is the two candle sticks that remain. They are a constant reminder to him of that day when he was forgiven.

But at the same time the story highlights how it is sometimes impossible to escape our past, even after we have been forgiven. Ever present hunting him down is the persistent Javert.  The former prison guard turned detective is convinced that people can’t change and that it is his duty from God to make sure that Jean Valjean never be allowed to forget nor escape from his past.

One irony of the story that the musical mentions, but doesn’t unpack is the story of Javert’s past. Like Jean Valjean, his life too is connected to a prison. Not the one in which he worked, but the one in which he was born. In the book we learn that his mother was a Gypsy fortune-teller, and his father a galley slave. Javert, so repulsed by his own past, decided to become part of the system in order to help control, if not wipe out, the kind of people who gave him life. Javert, like Jean Valjean, wants to escape his past and he thinks that by hunting Valjean he is doing God’s work and will relieve his own suffering.

The story of both men ends the same. Both die at the end. Javert dies confused and unsure if he can accept the kind of forgiveness God offers. Jean Valjean dies with his candlesticks in view, the mementos of the day he knew he was forgiven. And with death his doubts, his fears and even his past finally depart and he is finally free. Some things, it seems, only come with death.

I suppose it is the same for many of us. There are parts of our lives, deeds we committed, things we said that we wish we had not. We have been forgiven, and yet we cannot forget the past. Like the candlesticks, our knowledge of forgiveness is there, but so is the haunting memory of our past. And there are those around us who don’t want us to forget the past, who don’t think we can or did change and that God should not forgive us. And like the story of Valjean and Javert, the only way we will get final and complete relief from our past is in death.

In the mean time, we embrace the death of Christ as the symbol of our own death and forgiveness as we wait to die so that we can escape our past and finally be free to live (Rom. 6)