Meditating on “Les Mis”: The Stars of Javert
Assuming that you are not just now awaking from a coma, you have probably seen or at least heard of the 2012 production of the classic musical Les Miserables, known to its many fans simply as “Les Mis”. It was of course justly famous even before Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and many others brought it again to the public attention, since the original was written by Victor Hugo in 1862. But their brilliant performances have once again put this perennial favourite into the media spotlight.
Since this is not a movie review, I will say little of its qualities as a movie. Instead, I would like to focus all my attention on a speech made by Javert, the police inspector who relentlessly pursues the escaped criminal Valjean throughout the length of the years and throughout the length of the film. He makes an impassioned soliloquy in a song called “Stars”. In it, the inspector declares his determination to chase and apprehend Valjean the escaped criminal, since Valjean is “a fugitive running, fallen from God, fall from grace”. Javert is sure that he thereby does the work of God, for though Valjean “knows his way in the dark”, Javert’s way “is the way of the Lord, and those that follow the path of the righteous shall have their reward”.
It is an impressive moment. Inspired by the righteousness of his holy quest, he looks up to the stars shining above him, stars which seem to light the way forward. For him these stars are not simply physical lights in the sky; they are the heavenly host, standing watch over God’s righteous order on earth and guaranteeing that justice will ultimately be done. Seeing the stars, Javert cries out, “Stars in multitude, scarce to be counted, filling the darkness with order and light! You are the sentinels, silent and sure, keeping watch in the night! You know your place in the sky; you hold your course and your aim!” The stars never veer from their appointed order or path. Like unfallen angels they continue to do God’s will. But what if they ever were to fail in their obedience and veer from the path? “If you fall as Lucifer fell, you fall in flames! And so it must be and so it is written on the doorway to Paradise, that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price.” If angels fall and become demons, the doorway into Paradise is forever blocked for them. Sin and repentance have no place among the angels or the stars.
It is easy to despise Javert as simply a cold-hearted prig, a self-righteous Pharisee. But his vision is a noble one, and is not so easily dismissed. The Scriptures are clear that justice does undergird all the cosmos. It is as the Psalmist sang to God: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne” (Ps. 89:14). If justice is not done on earth and if the wicked are not judged, “all the foundations of the earth are shaken” (Ps. 82:5). In our modern culture (at least up north here in Canada), we rarely see true justice done; few “maintain the right of the afflicted and destitute” or “rescue the weak and the needy”. Criminals prosper or receive absurdly light sentences when caught, so that we “walk about in darkness” (Ps. 82:3f). It seems to many that the rights of criminals are often of greater weight than the right or the plight of their victims. Too often, justice does not go forth, and even the vision of justice is scarcely comprehended. A folk song of the 60’s once celebrated not only “the bell of freedom” and “ the song of love between my brothers and my sisters”, but also and first of all “the hammer of justice”. Sad to relate, that hammer has all but fallen from our hands today. Javert’s vision draws its strength from comprehending the importance of that hammer of justice, and from his conviction that we should strive to do God’s will on earth as the stars do it in the heavens. No theology worth the name can lose sight of the importance of justice, or cease exhorting us to align our lives with the unchanging standards in the skies.
The problem with Javert’s vision and theology is not that he fails to appreciate justice, but that he fails to see that men are not like the heavenly host. Angels are rooted in eternity, and see with unfailing clarity the eternal issues and consequences of their actions. They live in the unstained light of God’s Presence, and in that light, there is no room for ambiguity, doubt, hesitation. Choices made in that light are eternal choices, and irrevocable. That is why there is no possibility of repentance for them, for repentance presupposes a measure of moral twilight and ambiguity. Like the prodigal son, we human beings can “come to our senses” (Lk. 15:17) and rethink things from another perspective. We can reconsider, we can change the mind—indeed, that is what repentance, metanoia, literally means. It is otherwise with the angels. They cannot “come to their senses”, for they never leave them, and so have no cause to rethink or change the mind. Choices once made are made forever. That is why Christ became man to save men, but not angelic to save angels. “He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendants of Abraham” (Heb. 2:16). He does not give help to fallen angels, for fallen angels are beyond helping.
Javert was noble and right in understanding that justice is foundational. He was not right in failing to understand that men can repent as angels cannot. A man can veer far from the path, and defy the order and ordinances of God. He can walk into the dark, and falter, and fall—and then can come to his senses. The moral order over which the angels stand sentinel remains, and the penitent man can be restored to that order if he so chooses. Lucifer may indeed fall in flames when he falters, but it is otherwise with men, humble creatures of dust and ashes. The same Psalter which celebrates the eternal justice of God, also celebrates His eternal mercy: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Ps. 103:12f). Over the doorway to Paradise it is not written that those who fall must pay the price. Over that doorway are written other words, the words of the Saviour: “Come to Me, all that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). Under the shining sentinel stars, there are many who labour and are heavy-laden, who are les miserables. Christ has come to accept their repentance, and to give them rest.