If it helps you, picture a bunch of stage hands switching things around in the dark.
From the counterproductivity of legalism we turn to an important question: How can we come to the defense of the sinner while at the same time condemning the sin? The same question can be rephrased in reverse order: How can we express disapproval of the sin while behaving compassionately toward the sinner?
I think the answer lies in an understanding of what sin is and does. Sin is like a prison. It lures us with trappings of pleasure or satisfaction, and then when it gets a hold of us it binds us as with chains.
Jesus says as much:
Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. (John 8:34)
Sin makes us less human. It may feel good for a time — just as using drugs and alcohol is pleasurable to the addict or alcoholic — but ultimately it harms the very heart of the person who commits it.
While we do see something of this in Jean Valjean’s case, we see it more explicitly in the character of Fantine (Anne Hathaway). She has been forced into prostitution in order to feed her child, and when she sings her song of lamentation, “I Dreamed a Dream,” it is perhaps the most moving and tragic scene in the film.
And how do people from the upper tiers of the social hierarchy and servants of the law treat her? With pure contempt.
In fact, at one point Javert almost has her arrested for striking a “gentleman” (an act of self-defense). The idea that her action might have been justified, that perhaps the man she struck had been posing a threat to her, never occurs to him. He knows nothing about her — only that she is a prostitute, and therefore not to be trusted. In all likelihood, she was born bad.
To the extent that the law puts people down and obscures their dignity, it becomes a servant of sin rather than a safeguard against it (remember, the degradation of the human person is sin’s purpose and effect). When we look down on people self-righteously, when we jump too quickly to judgment, what we end up doing is maintaining them in their sins (“They’ll never change”).
Don’t get me wrong — law is necessary and good. Society’s judgments on legitimate wrongs are likewise good. But in the words of Pope John Paul II,
Forgiveness … seeks to reintegrate individuals and groups into society, and countries into the community of nations. No punishment should suppress the inalienable dignity of those who have committed evil. The door to repentance and rehabilitation must always remain open.*
No such “door” is open to Fantine, and so she loses faith in a benevolent God.
At this point, Valjean intervenes. Having reformed his life and worked his way up to the position of mayor of the town in which Fantine lives, he discovers her in the gutter and lifts her out.
One cannot help but be reminded of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. As this woman is faced with the prospect of being stoned to death, Jesus says this to her captors:
Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (John 8:7)
Not to be redundant, but I do need to return to Blessed John Paul II, who comments on this passage in his Apostolic Letter “Mulieris Dignitatem”:
In the end Jesus says to her: “Do not sin again“, but first he evokes an awareness of sin in the men who accuse her (…) Jesus seems to say to the accusers: Is not this woman, for all her sin, above all a confirmation of your own transgressions, of your “male” injustice, your misdeeds? (italics his)
This seems to apply in Fantine’s case as well. After all, for all Javert’s zeal for the enforcement of the law, does he ever give any hint of concern for the social conditions that contribute to the sins of folks living in the dregs of society? (It is worth noting that there is a reprise of “Look Down” in the mouths of peasants at one point in the film)
Unfortunately, Fantine dies shortly after Valjean’s intervention. A life of abject poverty and prostitution has taken its toll on her. But she dies knowing that she is loved, and therefore her hope in the triumph of truth, goodness, and beauty — and, we may suppose, God — is restored.
She is also happy because she knows her daughter, Cosette, will be well cared for. Valjean promises to see to that — in fact, he takes Cosette in and raises her himself.
Here, we see Valjean extending the “economy” of grace. Having been shown mercy by the kindly old Bishop, he is inspired to live a life of grace, extending that mercy to others.
That’s the thing about the life of grace, which comes to us through Jesus Christ: It is a gift that is increased by being shared, the treasure that grows to the extent that it is given away.
What motivates this sort of “pay-it-forward” attitude for the Christian? Gratitude, certainly. But also, it gets us less focused on ourselves. It neither permits us to indulge in sin nor maintains us in our guilt, but frees us to actualize our true selves. And as I’ve said before, all human beings are made in the image of the Triune God, and so we only truly find ourselves when we make of our very selves a sincere gift to others.
Both sin and the pharisaical abuse of the law (itself a sin) get in the way of this.
*From the book “Go in Peace”