Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Les Misérables: Do We Still Love the Characters in this Story of Grace When They Cross Our Paths & Walk Our Streets Today?

 

Les Misérables BBC & PBS Masterpiece 2019


Love, faith, kindness, mercy ... 
I wonder in that world if each of us would be cast in the role of villain or hero. + Matt Mikalatos


To date, among all the iterations available, my favorite version of Victor Hugo's all-time classic is the 2019 BBC & PBS Masterpiece Limited Series version of Les Misérables. From the direction to the characterization to the realism in the fear and the hope, the pain and the possibility, the story gripped me and did not let go even though I knew where it was all going.

In thinking about the theme of grace that the story begins with, I appreciate how Evan Koons in For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles describes our introduction to Jan Valjean's in brief:

On a cold bleak night long ago, a beggar wandered the streets looking for a warm place to rest his head. His wanderings seemed in vain however, for there was no one who failed to recognize the notorious vagabond and thief, Jean Valjean. And so, worry and frozen to the bone, Valjean tried one last door, that of the town bishop. And to his surprise, the bishop welcomed him with open arms. The kind bishop fed the pitiful Valjean and then he bid him goodnight. But Valjean, returning to old habits, plundered the bishop's home of its silver and stole off into the night. But he didn't get far. Come the morning, Valjean found himself once more in the bishop's home, this time escorted by the soldiers that had apprehended him. 'This man seems to have taken possession of all your valuables, Father. But he claims you gave them to him as a gift.' The pitiful Valjean sank deeper into his shame. But the bishop, in kindness and grace, looked upon Valjean and said, 'Yes, it's true. I gave him those trinkets. But Valjean, you left so quickly that you forgot the second part of your gift. Then the bishop took the most treasured of his possessions – his silver candlesticks – and offered them to the thief. Valjean was taken aback by the man's mercy. 'My good men, unshackle him. You may be on your way.' Once the soldiers had left, the bishop told the thief, 'With this silver, I have ransomed your soul for Christ. Go now, redeemed and restored, and live a life worthy of this gift.' And in that moment, the thief was forever changed for he had never known such grace.

In reflecting on the themes of justice, mercy, hospitality, and ultimately, costly grace, in Hugo's story as well as in our world today, Dr. Anthony Bradley goes on to say:

We keep talking about all these spaces or spheres in society needing to harmonize together, and that these spheres harmonizing is something that contributes to flourishing. If that's the case, how come we don't see more of that? How come we just keep seeing more hurting people? There's one thing that matters in this whole conversation about justice and order and flourishing. If we don't have this one thing, this all just completely collapses. What's that? Hospitality. The reason why there's still so much pain and dependency in our world, I'm sorry to suggest, is because of us, the Church. We've abandoned our call to hospitality, one of the most ancient Christian virtues. True hospitality is about opening your door to the stranger.

Costly grace. True hospitality. Opening your door to the stranger. With these thoughts in mind, I greatly appreciated the relevant food for thought Matt Mikalatos recently shared after he watched the musical film adaptation of Les Misérables with his children this June:

My kids are watching "Les Misérables" tonight and I can't help but think there are a lot of people who love this story and would absolutely hate everything about it if it were set in modern day. 
A convict imprisoned for minor theft highlights the plight of the poor and the inequities of the justice system. A single-minded police officer whose insistence on the letter of the law creates injustice. 
An impoverished woman whose #metoo moment ends with her disbelieved, cast away from society, further impoverished and forced into prostitution, where she is taken advantage of and ultimately wrung out until dead by upper class johns and the justice system. 
These injustices lead to an ultimately failed riot by young people, that is nevertheless held up as an exemplar of the Kingdom of God that is coming. 
Even the minor villains are small business owners who are working hard to achieve riches at the expense of the people around them. 
And in all of this, the heroes, the only people who provide any help to one another: 
+ An ex-convict on the run from the law 
+ a lying churchman who extends grace 
+ a young rioter 
+ a prostitute and her child 
+ a homeless child (also murdered by state violence) 
All of this in an unapologetically spiritual, inherently Christian story in which every prayer is answered save one: Javert's prayer that the convict be placed behind bars again. 
And the thief is not transformed by prison, which makes him only more desperate, more dangerous. He is not transformed by justice. He becomes a better man, a functioning part of society because of mercy, and because he is invited into the community of faith. Love, faith, kindness, mercy. Justice and rule of law bring only injustice and death in this story.  
I wonder in that world if each of us would be cast in the role of villain or hero. ... 

Christ is all, 

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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