Monday, November 21, 2011

Why did Javert kill himself?

My wife and I and many of our friends at different times recently attended performances of Les Misérables at the local performing arts center. With only one exception, the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. My wife and I were in tears at the end. The play portrayed beautifully the Christian redemption story Hugo had so lovingly woven in his novel. Certainly, the protagonist, Jean Valjean, typifies the essential Christ-like character of a kingdom dweller. One friend concurred with me but noted, correctly, that the play took some poetic license by having the revolutionaries end up in heaven. True, just because one dies fighting for a cause—even a good one—doesn’t make one kingdom material. Yet a deeper truth resonates within the Les Mis tale that we don’t want to miss. And the truth can be found by asking the question: Why did the antagonist, Javert, kill himself in the end?

Javert was a policeman of the highest order. As with all legalists, Javert saw himself as the great righter of all wrongs in the world. He had intended to weed it out one miscreant at a time until nothing was left but a pure world. He did this by holding everyone to impeccable standards; and, critical to understanding Javert, he held himself to those same standards; Javert was a quintessential legalist.

Javert operated on the eye-for-an-eye code of ethics; consequently, he dogged Valjean tirelessly throughout Jean’s life because, according to the strict code of the Law, Jean had never paid fully for his sins, despite the fact that Jean had clearly repented of them innumerable times in most objective ways. Such penitence swayed Javert little because in his mind a person was either good or bad, and the distinction was made largely on the basis of appearances. For this reason, Javert accepted the bourgeois man’s story after the prostitute, Fantine, had scratched the man’s face, because she was a sinner, and the man a respectable citizen, even though in reality the man had all but raped Fantine and provoked her to defend herself.

Doesn't a policeman represent law and order, and above all else, justice? I’ve always been taught this. So what was Javert’s problem? As with all legalists, Javert failed to realize that the holiness he sought cannot be established without love. The great and ironic fallacy is holiness can be attained and maintained by simply imposing rules and regulations on people.

Only by love first reaching out to the sinner can the latter ever hope to see the unholy state they are in. The priest proved this by his treatment of Valjean at the beginning of the story; Valjean demonstrated this truth by his treatment of Fantine, as did Jesus countless times during His ministry on earth—the woman at the well being a case in point (John 4). The reason justice requires first the expression of love (mercy) is because pure love rendered leads the receiver into the presence of God, the only source of the knowledge of holiness and the grace to live it. The line near the end of Les Mis, “when we love another we see the face of God,” is absolutely true.

Saint Paul substantiates the aforementioned principle of love in Romans 2:1-4:

Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things. And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?

Javert and all legalists believe themselves to be holy because they promote the law by passing judgments on others. But Paul rightly says this is absurd because no one is guiltless—as Javert would soon discover about himself (I’ll get back to this in a moment). No, only by the extension of pure mercy, which of course God has done perfectly by sending His son, Jesus the Christ, leads to repentance.

Mercy by definition does not condemn or punish but restores. True justice is not retribution but a course adjustment from the wrong order of things to the right order of things, which is holiness. The legalist misses this fact because he has divested holiness of love that is actually inextricably tied with holiness, and fails to see that God is about restoration, which is love and holiness working as mercy and justice, and not retribution. Certainly, final restoration will necessitate God destroying all things—everything remaining under His wrath--that hinder perfect holiness in love. But that is only for God to do because only He is perfectly holy and perfectly love.

Love maintains and establishes holiness because love originates in all eternity in the triune God who created everything. But love must be pure because God is holy; true love cannot be separate from holiness; otherwise, love reduces to attempting to relate with each other or God on the basis of whatever feels right, with the result of destructive relationships, where there is neither love nor holiness.

Therefore, the tension of love and holiness must be rigorously maintained or both will be lost. But in restoration, such as when the priest restored Valjean by forgiving him and elevating his status or when Valjean lifted Fantine out of prostitution, love must come first—always in complete conformity with holiness--because love is what both defines and maintains holiness. Love opens eyes blinded by the despair of death, and love cools the fires of hell, so the sinner might then properly assess his plight and clearly understand his own sole accountability.

Not everyone, of course, will respond to love (mercy) extended to them and seek its power to live in holiness (justice). Some, such as the other prostitutes who taunted Fantine, have consciences seared by self-hate; others, such as the innkeeper and his wife who had cruelly exploited Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, are too consumed by greed; and others, such as Javert, have been frozen by their own self-righteousness.

Valjean, who certainly had a right to hate and not forgive Javert, extended mercy to Javert by letting him go when he could have taken revenge for a lifetime of torment by killing him. Yet this extension of the hand of love failed to move Javert. This time mercy did not bring about justice, which in this case would have been a shift from the wrong order of Javert’s loveless legalism to the right order of love in holiness. Love did not soften Javert’s heart to love in return—not even himself. And love to be love must be translational: freely flowing unconditionally between the lovers.

What in Javert prevented love from penetrating his heart? Why did Javert kill himself, instead? For Javert and all legalists, purity and righteousness means perfectly conforming to the law. When he learned by Valjean's example that perfect conformity to the law is actually love, he realized he had failed his whole life to live the very standard he always espoused; mercy, in Javert’s legalistic mind, actually became a judgment against him. Javert always understood love as a transaction because that is the way legalism works: every action must get its rightful due; thus, by that standard, Javert saw himself condemned, so he saved God the trouble and killed himself. You must remember, Javert had always held himself to the same standard he expected from others.

In closing, no one can live in holiness without love held in equal force because without love holiness crumbles and vise versa. For this reason, the practitioner of loveless holiness will always destroy themselves in the end; either they will become bitter, merciless, and cruel, as did Javert, or they will abandon their so-called holiness altogether and do the very things they had always despised in others. None of these outcomes, of course, have any connection at all with holiness and love that define and maintain the kingdom of heaven, the dwellers of which Jean Valjean remains a sterling example: persons who seek to bring justice by first extending mercy.


Jeanne H. said...

Bruce-thank you for putting into words what I was trying to grab hold of the entire show. I was so caught off guard by how I reacted to the message. I appreciate your perspective on legalism as I have struggled with other's views over the years and have finally grown past listening to those voices and only focusing on Christ. Thank you again!