Rick Santorum and Les Misérables

Perhaps you know the Cliff’s Notes version of the story, but if you’ve never read the book, seen the stage musical or ventured out yet to see the movie version starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Ann Hathaway, among others, stop here. I don’t want to play the spoiler nor do I want to influence your impressions going in.

I saw Les Misérables Sunday morning. Yes, I skipped “church.” Depending on the movie, sometimes, unfortunately, I have to admit that I’m more “convicted” or inspired by the message of art in one of its many forms than I am in most contemporary services and this is one that does it every time.

Of course, I knew the story—I attempted to read the book once and I saw the musical in London almost 15 years ago. This time my thoughts took a slightly different turn.

I thought about Rick Santorum. I know that may seem strange, but stay with me.

I can’t tell you where or when he said it, but I remember seeing a video clip back during the Republican primaries when somebody asked him what he thought about the fact that other Christians disagreed with one of his religiously-underpinned political stances. His response was that there are different “stripes” of Christianity.

At the time, I remember being slightly offended. The principles of the Christ I know are not made up of a blending of democratic principles that can be symbolized like different colonies or states by distinct stripes on a flag, and I thought he’d confused his spiritual life with his patriotism. At least for me, they are two very different things. “My kingdom is not of this world” pretty well sums that concept, suggesting to me that we each have to learn to manage the paradox, finding a way to live as “one catholic and apostolic church” and simultaneously participate as American citizens, recognizing that any given “stripe” doesn’t have all the answers, unlike Jesus. Find a human conflict today and I can find a statement or parable that applies.

But watching Les Misérables yesterday, I decided that though Rick was referring, I think, to the differing beliefs of various denominations with respect to the issue at hand, he had stumbled onto something. There are, I think, at least two stripes, and the demarcation line has to do with the same issues Les Misérables examines. English professors might say that the issues are those of law and grace, but—in the vernacular of Christians—I would describe them as justice vs. mercy. Not justice and mercy, which I believe Jesus taught, but justice versus mercy. And that’s where our biggest differences lie. If we focus on either without the other, we are lost, just like our current Congressional Republicans and Democrats over how we should approach the fiscal issues we face.

My contention is overly simplified, of course, but I’ve decided that which “stripe” we are depends on whether we identify more with Javert (Russell Crowe) or Bishop Myriel, who sets Jean Valjean on a path of redemption by not only not claiming an entitlement to vengeance over silver, but, in front of the policemen who brought Valjean back to face him, tells Valjean that he’d “forgotten” two candlesticks when he’d slipped away in the night.

Yes, the prophet Micah said we are required by God to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” But we don’t “do” justice well. We can’t. Justice is in the eye of the beholder, and only One is omniscient, only One knows all. Too often, the meaning of justice is narrowed to mean to “vengeance” and not equity, which is closer in our current language to what Micah probably said. Today, someone is necessarily in the “wrong,” and it is seldom “us.” I’ve written before that I don’t think Jesus would have so prominently included in “The Lord’s Prayer” the line about forgiving others their offences as we have been forgiven for ours if we weren’t prone to err in sticking our noses into business that isn’t ours.

But Javert couldn’t live with himself. He didn’t know what to do with mercy.

I’ve decided, for now, that which stripe we most identify with depends on experience—specifically whether or not we’ve ever been shown mercy and if we have been, if we realized it. What I mean by that is whether or not we’ve ever been caught dead to rights (that’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it?), flat out guilty, knowing that we have committed a crime toward another and are deserving of punishment, and yet have been shown mercy. Cause if you have, you know it, and it changes you. It changed me.

It changed a man named Saul, too, who’d stood by watching as Stephen was stoned to death, changed his name, and spent the rest of his life telling people about it. He even died because of it. Come to think of it, I’ll bet it changed the woman caught in adultery, too—the one Jesus stepped in to save from stoning. I’ll bet she never slept around again and never tired of telling the story of the strange man who stepped in to save her from certain death from the justice of her peers.

It changed Javert and, in the end, he couldn’t reconcile it with his version of justice. For Valjean it was different. It changed Jean Valjean, too, so much that he spent the rest of his free life offering justice and recompense to Fantine by becoming father to her child, and looking, as the song says, “into the face of God.”

He couldn’t help himself—it was two for one. He “did” justice by loving mercy. And in the end, he found out that reconciling the two was easy. As with most paradoxes, the solution lies in the knowledge that they are simply two sides of the very same “stripe.” So, I disagree with Rick.

There may still be an either/or here, though. Either you do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God, or you don’t.

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