I cannot begin to count the times since the release of the 1998 movie Les Miserables that I have seen a pastor show the clip of the priest telling the police who are about to carry Jean Valjean back to jail for having robbed said priest that Valjean is innocent because the silver he is carrying with him was a gift from the priest. The moment reaches it's dramatic peak when, after the police leave, the priest informs Valjean that he must live a good life now because he (the priest) has purchased his soul for God.
It's a great scene and very moving. Jean Valjean is a wonderful character and his struggle to be a good man is beautiful (he's got a few lines in the musical that always choke me up). However, from the moment that I got over my lovesick obsession with Eponine it was not Valjean, Cosette or Marius that fascinated me. It was Javert, the unbending, seemingly cruel police officer that hunts Valjean throughout the years. (Though I also love Fantine. I might talk about her another day.)
Javert could be called the villain. After all, you kind of hate him. The first time you see him he's releasing Valjean from a 19 year prison sentence while reminding him that he will always be a thief. He doesn't even refer to Valjean by name, instead demeaning him with his number- 24601. Even after Valjean makes good and starts a new life as a benevolent, law abiding owner of a brick shop and mayor of a town, when Javert finds him he ignores all of these things and only sees the thief who broke parole. Back to jail he must go! When he comes to arrest Valjean, he callously ignores Valjean's pleas to let him take care of Fantine's orphaned child, forcing Valjean to attack him and run to find and care for Cosette.
But here's the thing about Javert and his haunting songs in the musical. He absolutely, 100% believes he is the hero of this piece. He's doing exactly what he believes is the right thing and what God would want him to do. He believes he is the hand of the Lord and that justice is a swift and deadly sword because "those that stumble and those that fall must pay the price." In one song he even prays, "Lord, let me find him that I may see him safe behind walls." It's not a personal vendetta for him, he just believes with all his heart that Valjean is a dangerous criminal and he, Javert, must stop him and bring him to justice.
I pity Javert. He tries so hard to be a righteous man that he is blinded to the suffering of the innocent and that things around him are more complex than black and white, right and wrong. He's so trapped in this unbending world of his own creation that when he and Valjean have their final confrontation and Valjean spares his life, Javert cannot cope. In the musical he sings his final, heartrending song:
All my thoughts fly apart, can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven? Shall his crimes be reprieved?
And must I now begin to doubt, who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone, but still it trembles.
The world I know is lost in shadows.
Is he from heaven or from hell? And does he know?
That by granting me my life today, that man has killed me even so.....
There is nowhere I can turn, there is no way to go on.
In the light that Javert could be wrong, that Valjean could be a good man and that his sins could be forgiven was more than Javert could handle and he kills himself. It's mind boggling. In the light of mercy, grace and forgiveness, Javert chooses to take his life rather than face a new world.
I know this is getting long but here is the moral of my story. It can be hard, so hard, to love and forgive people who are unbending and judgmental. You just want to smack them or yell at them, or maybe never speak to them again. But these people are likely not trying to hurt you. They are convinced of their truth and they are clinging to it like a life preserver. I've been white-knuckled in my past as well. All you can do is be like Valjean and in spite of all the torture Javert put him through, still show mercy and forgiveness, just as it was shown to you, just as you want it to be shown to others. I'm hoping our stubborn loved ones won't pull a Javert and jump off a bridge, but maybe we can shatter their graceless worlds with mercy and love?