To celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary, Nancy and I went to “Les Miserables,” a musical I had never seen before. Nor have I read the 1,500 page novel, although I’ve been hearing references to it all my life. Unavoidably,the movie presents an impossibly compressed version of the original story line. But they got the theme right: forgiveness.
Early in the story, Jean Valjean is paroled after serving nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. But for repeated escape attempts he would have been released much earlier. Unable to find work, Valjean comes under the care of Bishop Myriel, a compassionate cleric whose deeds of kindness have earned him the informal title “Monseigneur Bienvenu”.
Unable to sleep on a comfortable bed, the restless Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver and flees into the night, only to be captured and hauled back to the Bishop in chains for identification.
Myriel tells the gendarmes that his guest received the silver as a gift. In fact, Valjean was also given two silver candlesticks that he neglected to take with him. When the two men are alone, Myriel tells Valjean to use the silver to become an honest man. Overwhelmed with this display of unwarranted forgiveness, Valjean is transformed.
Forgiveness is also at the heart of the dramatic twist toward the end of the story. For years, the virtuous Valjean has been pursued by the implacable Inspector Javert, a strict devotee of justice who knew Valjean as a mean-spirited prisoner and is desperate for a chance to send him back to the galleys. Javert infiltrates a group of revolutionaries but his true identity is revealed. Learning that his nemesis is awaiting execution, Valjean receives permission to do the deed himself. But the moment the two men are alone, Javert is set free.
Unable to live with the implications of audacious mercy, Javert, the defender of remorseless justice, takes his own life.
Victor Hugo was assailed as a sentimentalist when Les Miserables was first published in 1862. Men like Myriel and Valjean don’t exist in the real world, critics asserted. A century and a half later, we might be inclined to agree. The stage version of Les Miserables could be described as high melodrama.
But Myriel is clearly intended as a Christ figure while Valjean is a mixture of Jesus and Saul of Tarsus. If these characters are incredible, so are the Gospels.
Is radical forgiveness possible?
While this question was still lurking in the back of my mind, I came across a heart-rending story in the New York Times Magazine that moved me to tears. A young man murdered his girlfriend after a weekend of escalating conflict, then, unable to summon the will to take his own life, turned himself in to the police.
From the beginning, the girl’s parents reached out to the young man who destroyed their precious daughter and eventually found it possible to offer forgiveness. They embarked on this journey, not because they felt sorry for the murderer, but for the sake of their own souls. As the mother explained, “When people can’t forgive, they’re stuck.”
How do a mother and a father who have lost a beloved daughter reach out in love to the young man who took her life. It wasn’t their idea. As they sat by their daughter’s hospital bedside in her dying moments the parents felt her telling them to forgive her killer. Both parents are devout Roman Catholics who model their lives on Jesus and the Christian teaching of Saint Augustine. Eventually they understood that God was driving them to the young man who pulled the trigger.
There followed an excruciating experiment with restorative justice in which the defendant listened silently as his victim’s parents talked about the horror he had introduced into their lives. When it was over, the parents recommended a sentence of between five and fifteen years. The reluctant prosecutor settled for twenty years and ten years of probation. He was denounced in the local media for his excessive lenience; normally, the young man would have died in prison.
It isn’t just individuals who are stuck when they can’t forgive—so are societies. For over forty years, America has languished in the grasp of what we at Friends of Justice call a “punitive consensus”. We’re like Inspector Javert—the only answer to crime is punishment and the more punishment the better.
Rehabilitation was once the goal of our “corrections” system, but those days are long gone. Like Javert, we have divided the world into two tribes: good people like us and incorrigible monsters like them. We no longer believe that offenders can be rehabilitated. Some of us are so far gone that we are offended by the mere possibility of moral transformation—it messes with our good-evil dualism.
In short, our hardness of heart has us horribly, dreadfully stuck and only the gospel of grace can save us.