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Les Misérables and the folly of grace


Victor Hugo-CosetteSepia

Victor Hugo-CosetteSepia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess we each have a picture of grace: what it looks like, how it operates and, of course, its limitations. Yes, I know, grace isn’t supposed to have limits, but we have to be practical, surely?

In God’s economy grace doesn’t wait for guarantees or require a deposit. But we’re not so sure about that, either. After all, we can’t just offer someone free pardon and hope they make amends. What if they ignore the responsibilities that go with our gift? What if we’re left with nothing because we’ve ‘invested’ in the wrong person?

Although he rejected the Christian faith, French writer Victor Hugo seems to have understood grace better than most. He may not have practiced it any better than we, but he captured it beautifully in his epic novel, Les Misérables. We were reminded of Hugo’s profound view of grace when we went to see the filmed version of the musical recently.

Victor Hugo had apparently seen grace in action in the Bishop of Digne, Bienvenu de Miollis, on whom he based his character Bishop Myriel. In Les Misérables, Bishop Myriel’s unconditional grace turned Jean Valjean’s life around, with extraordinary results.

Of Bishop Myriel Victor Hugo writes, ‘The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.’ The Catholic writer Theresa Malcolm says, ‘Monseigneur Myriel. . . is the soul of the novel, he who sowed love where there was hatred, light where there was darkness.’

Bishop Myriel takes the vagrant Valjean into his home, feeds him and gives him a bed. Valjean repays him by stealing his silver and fleeing into the night. When the police catch Valjean and bring him back to the Bishop with the unlikely tale that the Bishop had given him the silver, the Bishop agrees. ‘That’s right,’ he sings.

But, my friend, you left so early,
something surely slipped your mind.
You forgot I gave these (candlesticks) also.
Would you leave the best behind?

After the police have gone, he says to Valjean:

The silver candlesticks‘Never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!’

The context of Hugo’s grace is a society fraying at the edges and stretching to breaking point. The film version portrays more starkly than the stage production can the vast number of people existing at the edges of society. We see the depth of their poverty, misery and, above all, despair. And despair is echoed in the songs.

In the opening song Jean Valjean sings,

‘I’ve done no wrong, Sweet Jesus hear my prayer,’
To which the other prisoners reply,
‘Sweet Jesus doesn’t care.’
And they end with the cry of despair:
‘You’ll always be a slave
Look down, look down,
You’re standing in your grave.’

Later the poor sing:

At the end of the day you’re another day older
And the shirt on your back doesn’t keep out the chill;
And the righteous hurry past,
They don’t hear the little ones crying
And the winter is coming on fast
Ready to kill,
One day nearer to dying.

Which brings us back to the limits of grace. Our expression of grace is usually limited by two things.

We are afraid of the size of the problem: it’s far too big for our meagre supply of grace, our few candlesticks.

And we are afraid of what people will do with grace if it’s given too freely. They may take our candlesticks and run, never looking back. We would have wasted the candlesticks, instead of using them for others more deserving.

We stall because we first measure out the cost of grace against its benefit. What will the return on our grace be? Perhaps chastised for his unseemly hoard of silver, the kindly Bishop was willing to put it to good use. But to chance it all on a single throw of the dice? To give it all to this one undeserving thief?

Perhaps the Bishop knew more about grace than we do. Perhaps he had experienced for himself what undeserved, extravagant grace can do. Perhaps he knew also that grace is not mass-produced for mass distribution to mass markets. Grace works best when delivered with care in personalised packages, under great risk.

The Bishop knew he could do very little for the masses of poor and desperate who live outside of hope, and who sing:

Nothing changes, nothing ever will .
Every year another brat, another mouth to fill.
Same old story. What’s the use of tears?
What’s the use of praying
If there’s nobody who hears?

But perhaps he also knew that God has always preferred to ‘invest’ in individuals rather than in the crowds. He delights in what an individual can do when she or he responds to grace with love and mercy.

‘Love one another,’ Jesus told his disciples.
‘Yes, Lord, we can do that.’
‘As I loved you.’
‘You mean, without limits?’
‘Without limits.’

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Why the West Rules—For Now


I am reading Ian Morris’s book, Why the West Rules—for Now.  It’s a fascinating look at the patterns of history and what they reveal about the future.  One reviewer called it, “The nearest thing to a unified field theory of history we are ever likely to get.”

I enjoyed Jared Diamond’s Gun’s, Germs and Steel which also looks at why the West has its nose in front or, as he puts it, why we have more “stuff”.  Morris runs through innumerable other such studies that fall very roughly into what he calls “long-term lock-in” or “short-term accident” theories, including the succinctly put summary of British poet and politician, Hilaire Belloc in 1898:

Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

Morris is an archaeologist and ancient historian (I presume the “ancient” part refers to his work rather than himself) and his broad sweep (he calls it “chainsaw art”) takes one on an archaeological, geographical, sociological and biological journey from 2.5 million years ago to 2010.  His ability to keep a vast range of material together and keep the reader interested is impressive as is his wide reading.  Morris writes (as one critic put it) “with wit and clarity that will delight the lay reader.” I agree.

His arguments, conclusions and theories do not concern us here.  I was simply challenged by his comments on Christianity.  If he is a man of faith, it doesn’t show; he writes impartially, but sympathetically, about all the major religions, from emperor worship to the “modern” great faiths.

I am also not particularly interested here in how accurate his understanding of the growth of Christianity may be, but in how others view Christians (and our squabbles) from the outside.  Let me quote a rather lengthy passage (slightly edited) from a section dealing with the dramatic growth of Christianity in the West and Buddhism in the East, each from a handful of followers to 100 million or so in about three or four centuries.

Jesus wrote no sacred texts, and as early as the 50s (AD) the apostle Paul was struggling to get Christians to agree on a few core points about what Christianity actually was.  Most followers accepted that they should be baptised, pray to God, renounce other gods, eat together on Sundays, and perform good works, but beyond these basic premises, almost anything was possible.  Some held that the God of the Hebrew Bible was merely the last (and lowest) in a series of prior gods.  Others thought the world was evil and so God the Creator must be wicked too.  Or maybe there were two gods, a malevolent Jewish one and Jesus’ wholly good (but unknowable) father.  Or two Jesuses, a spiritual one who escaped crucifixion and a bodily one who died on the cross.  Maybe Jesus was a woman, some suggested, and maybe women were equal to men.  Maybe new revelations could overrule the old ones.  Maybe Jesus’ Second Coming was imminent, in which case no Christian should have sex; maybe its imminence meant Christians should practice free love; or maybe only people who were martyred in horrible ways would go to heaven.

For Buddhists, multiple paths to nirvana were not a problem.  For Christians, however, getting into heaven depended on knowing who God and Jesus were and doing what they wanted, and so the chaos of interpretations forced believers into a frenzy of self-definition.  In the late second century most came to agree that there should be bishops who would be treated as descendants of the original apostles with the authority to judge what Jesus meant.  Preachers with wilder ideas were damned into oblivion, the New Testament crystalized, and the window on revelations closed.  No one could tinker with the Good Book and no one could hear from the Holy Spirit unless the bishops said so; and no one had to renounce marital sex or be martyred, unless they wanted to.

Morris is writing about Christianity’s first couple of centuries.  Once again, one can argue about the detail, but for “chainsaw art” he is not far off.  What about today?  What would an alien from outer space, or more to the point, what would someone outside of Christianity have to say about our internal squabbles, denominationalist standoffs, conservative-liberal warmongering, and a whole host of divisions fervently defended on all sides.

So much of our faith becomes a hearty defence, even open warfare, against what we do not and will not believe.  What we do believe, what we have to offer the world, is lost in the melee.  The great gift we have, what Jesus called his disciples to on the night before his crucifixion, was not just God’s love, mercy and healing, but God’s love, mercy and healing lived and practiced in a broken and divided world.  Jesus didn’t simply talk about these things; he modelled them for his followers in his daily decisions and interactions.  He cared enough to stop and listen and touch; he depended on God enough to get up early and pray; he balanced his prayer and reflection with moving forward into new opportunities for ministry.  Ultimately he demonstrated that God’s love for us and our love for others are more precious than life itself.

You and I are not likely to reduce or even contain the bitter theological turf wars that deny our faith (although I should only speak for myself; you perhaps have more influence than I).  The real question for every Christian is whether we will allow ourselves to be conduits for peace or for war?  Am I willing to let go of my “turf”, turn from arguments and the building of theological and liturgical castles, and put the practicing of God’s love, mercy and healing first; building others up rather than putting them down? 

I am convinced that relationship is more important than rightness; intimacy more fruitful than rules.

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