Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Legalism’

Les-miserables-movie-poster1

Notice: Some spoilers here

“Les Misérables” opens with the song “Look Down,” which is significant. The forces in this world opposed to the Will of God would always prefer to keep human beings looking down rather than up — that is, rather than looking toward hope. There are many ways of doing this, but in some way or other they all involve the wounding of the dignity that belongs to human beings.

Jean_ValjeanAs the film opens, we meet Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has been serving 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister’s starving child.

Valjean is finally paroled after nearly two decades, but he is a marked man. He must carry his convict’s papers with him wherever he goes so that everyone knows he is a “dangerous man.”

His first foray back into freedom takes him from town to town, and he is met wherever he goes with nothing but contempt — even to the point of being physically assaulted.

JavertOn top of that, he is being relentlessly pursued by Javert (Russell Crowe), the Constable who is determined to put Valjean back behind bars…even years later, when he has reformed his life.

Before we go further, we must realize that the crime for which Valjean was imprisoned is not only understandable, but fully justifiable.  In fact, his action was in total accord with Catholic social teaching, which states that whenever there is a question of obtaining basic necessities such as food and drink, and there is no other means of doing so, one has a right to take from the abundance of another.  Why?  Because, in fact, the person in question has a right to this necessity in justice.

After his release, Valjean’s situation reverses. He has been embittered and hardened by the institutional and societal injustice he has suffered, and this leads him to do something that is actually wrong.

Colm WilkinsonHe is taken in one night by a kindly old Bishop (Colm Wilkinson), and then at night he steals valuable items from him and escapes.  The next day, he is caught and dragged back to the Bishop by police officers.

Then what happens?  The Bishop denounces him, right?

On the contrary, he tells the police officers that these stolen items were, in fact, gifts from him to Valjean.  Not only that, he then declares that the only mistake Valjean made was forgetting to take two beautiful candles, which he immediately bequeaths to him.

Colm Wilkinson 2Valjean is not only “off the hook,” but now has a variety of valuable goods at his disposal.  The Bishop sends him on his way, but informs him that he must use these gifts for his own genuine good, for the bettering of himself as a man.

hugh-jackman-les-miserables1Now, contrast Valjean’s response to the Javert style of justice (already noted above) with his response to the Bishop’s utterly gratuitous act of generosity.  Valjean is a changed man.  The rest of the film follows him as he “pays it forward” with remarkable acts of charity toward others.

My point in recounting these plot points is to illustrate an important principle: The law, while good and necessary in itself, must never defeat its own purpose.  To the extent that it puts people down, it loses its way and becomes mere legalism.

When legalism is privileged over more humane approaches, as we can see, it proves to be counterproductive.  I’ll talk more about that in relation to the characters of “Les Misérables” within the next several days.

Top photo from Wikipedia; others obtained through a Google image search

Read Full Post »