Les Misérables powerfully and uncomfortably presents poverty, injustice, and evil. It asks, “What will you do about it?” Inspired by historical data and faith in God’s promises, we can follow the nonviolent, proactive, and sacrificial example of Jean Valjean (and also Jesus).
Two Responses to Evil
Les Misérables1 highlights two paths: one of violence and vengeance, one of nonviolence and mercy.
In Paris of 1832, passionate students revolt against King Louis-Philippe. They identify the oppressors, choose to hate, and attempt to violently remove them from power.
Bishop Myriel models a second response. Soon after release from prison, Jean Valjean stays at the home of the bishop. When caught by the authorities for stealing silver, the latter insists he gave them to Valjean. Due to this act of mercy, Jean Valjean pledges himself to God.
After becoming a business owner, Valjean cares for his employees, confesses to breaking parole in order to set an innocent man free, adopts an orphaned girl, risks his life to save a student, and even spares the life of Inspector Javert, truly turning the other cheek. Like Bishop Myriel, he responds to evil by showing mercy and doing a whole lot of good.
This is the way of Jesus as well. Jesus came to the Jewish people oppressed by the Roman Empire and proclaimed that “the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). Thinking like the students, many grew excited and expected revolution. Instead, Jesus aimed to create a community of people who live like Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean: giving, forgiving, and absurdly sacrificial.
A Secular Rationale for the Naiveté of Violence
Many would argue that Valjean and Jesus are naive because they do not respond to evil with force. To be fair, some conceive of nonviolence in a childish way. Underestimating evil, they think if they act nicely, then everyone else will do so as well. Instead, we must not believe that we can avoid suffering and sacrifice by remaining peaceful. Jesus said we would experience tribulation, and Jean Valjean sang of life as “this never-ending road to Calvary.”
Nevertheless, academic studies reveal that it is naive to believe you can defeat evil and even more foolish to believe violence will result in a better leader. Political scientist Erica Chenoweth comments, “The truth is that, from 1900 to 2006, major nonviolent resistance campaigns seeking to overthrow dictatorships, throw out foreign occupations, or achieve self-determination were more than twice as successful as violent insurgencies seeking the same goals” (emphasis mine).
Chenoweth provides multiple reasons for the efficacy of nonviolent movements, but Les Misérables portrays one in particular. Nonviolent resistance often appeals to the conscience of the oppressors. While a dictator might not have a change in heart, his military or police officers might refuse orders and maybe even join the resistance. In contrast, “loyalty shifts among the security forces are difficult for small, clandestine, violent groups to achieve. Violent threats typically unite the security forces, who join together to defend against them.”2
In the musical, the students did not even try to persuade the government as they assume people do not change. Ironically, Javert causes much of the injustice by believing the same and singing “men like you can never change, men like me can never change.” Bishop Myriel, on the other hand, knows it’s possible to “become an honest man,” which leads him to offer mercy, resulting in the transformation of Jean Valjean.
Not only does nonviolent resistance more likely end current oppression, it more likely results in a democratic and stable government. History is littered with “successful” revolts that inaugurate further injustice and horrors. Gavroche, a young boy recruited alongside the students (i.e. a child soldier), exemplify the failures of the French Revolution of 1789:
“There was a time we killed the King.
We tried to change the world too fast.
Now we have got another King.
He is no better than the last.”
A Spiritual Hope in Nonviolence
While the data and history should point all people towards nonviolence, followers of Christ have further reasons. Les Misérables beautifully provides spiritual rationale through contrasting lyrics. Pay special attention to references of the future with the words “day,” “tomorrow,” and “barricade.”
In “One Day More,” characters sing about what they will accomplish the following day. While the students proclaim, “One day to a new beginning… Raise the flag of freedom high… There’s a new world for the winning,” Javert sings of nipping the revolution “in the bud” and students wetting “themselves with blood.”
The song “Do You Hear the People Sing” asks “Beyond the barricade (i.e. after fighting) is there a world you long to see?” When the students sensibly decide to flee, a child stirs them to fight by singing this song, which emphasizes the childishness of solving problems through violence.
The revolution fails3 and every student but one dies, including the child. The survivor laments, “Here they sang about tomorrow and tomorrow never came.”
The song lyrics show the students foolishly believed they could defeat evil, (not just lessen it), bring about a utopia, and do so quickly, while the events of the story show they could not.
For the contrast, we look to the final rendition of “Do You Hear the People Sing.” Jean Valjean has died of old age and finds other characters singing in Heaven:
“They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the plowshare;
We will put away the sword4…
Somewhere beyond the barricade5
Is there a world you long to see…
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!”
Untold suffering comes when people use violence to impose their view of utopia. (Read how Thanos makes this fatal error in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) Instead, followers of Christ must trust that God will ultimately bring utopia, Heaven on Earth, when Jesus returns.
To clarify, trusting God for tomorrow does not mean we do not act today. Quite the opposite, we participate with God and diligently work for peace and justice. It means, however, that when we trust that goodness will prevail, we will not sacrifice our ethical principles as though the outcome depends entirely on us.
When people feel they must force the situation, they resort to physical force. Instead of naively believing we can defeat evil and control others, we must humbly believe we can mitigate evil and influence others, leaving it to God that “tomorrow comes.”
Coming back to the original question, how will you respond to the evil?
Seek economic justice and political equality, but do not focus on retributive justice like the students and Javert. If you find yourself hating the rich more than loving the poor, you’ve made a wrong turn. If you find yourself putting people in categories of good and bad, you are not helping.
Like Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean, look for opportunities to love individuals and sacrificially do what it takes to make their lives better. At the same time, I am not saying that we can only help people one-on-one. We must also address systemic injustices through nonviolent action with an attitude of mercy, believing that people can change. In this way, nonviolence is not a strategy alone, but the overflow of love.
How can you embrace the way of Jean Valjean, the way of Jesus, the way of mercy?
- This post focuses on the 2012 musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel. ↩
- As a fascinating aside, people have used computer simulations called agent-based models to analyze potential outcomes of a violent revolution. In one model, people are either unaffiliated citizens, revolutionaries, or police. Citizens can become revolutionaries, revolutionaries can be jailed or killed, and police can be killed, but the programmers did not model police becoming revolutionaries. In contrast, an agent-based model of a nonviolent movement, one would have to model police refusing to jail or kill and even joining the resistance. ↩
- As noted in the previously linked article, violent and nonviolent resistance require sufficient participation of the society. Chenoweth says, “No single campaign in that period failed after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population,” and “the nonviolent campaigns were on average four times larger than the average violent campaigns” as more people willingly join nonviolent efforts. Incidentally, Les Misérables notes that the students’ revolt fails because they could not rally people to the barricade. ↩
- The prophet Isaiah foretells a time of peace and justice where “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). ↩
- Now, “beyond the barricade” refers to the end of this life. ↩