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Les Misérables and Liberation Theology

Since the new musical film adaptation of Les Misérables hit theaters last Christmas, there has been no shortage of praise from Catholic reviewers (and some whiny criticism from the seculars) for director Tom Hooper’s decision not only to retain the religious themes baked into the libretto but to double down on them: lovingly filling frame after frame with crosses, candles, altars, vestments, chanting nuns, and every other sort of churchy accoutrement.

Others writers have taken the film’s release as an occasion to renew discussion of the story’s core theological message: the law convicts, but grace liberates. (For another, slightly different twist on the Valjean-Javert conflict, see this piece from a 1993 issue of This Rock.)

They say the mark of a classic is that you can encounter it many times and still find something new. And so it is. I have seen “Les Mis” three times on stage, listened to the Complete Symphonic Recordings more times than I can count, and now watched the film, but it has just dawned on me that apart from the contrast between grace and the law there’s another strong Christian theme: a rebuke of liberation theology.

***WARNING: Here be spoilers.***

Liberation theology conflates heavenly salvation with temporal justice, co-opting religious doctrine, morals, and piety to feed revolutionary fervor. Because of its association with Marxist ideology, its proponents’ often-irregular relationship to Church authority, and its nasty habit of “immanentizing  the eschaton”—deeming it possible to inaugurate Christ’s future, heavenly kingdom in someplace like Nicaragua or Sri Lanka—the movement and its leaders have been sharply criticized and sanctioned during the last two pontificates.

At first, Les Misérables seems sympathetic to such ideas. The opening scenes describe a classic conflict between injustice and liberation. After serving nineteen years of hard labor for a petty burglary to which desperate poverty had driven him, Jean Valjean is out on parole:

Freedom is mine . . .
The day begins and now let’s see
What this new world will do for me

His poverty and oppression, and his longing for the freedom of a new day and a new world, are microcosms of the suffering—and the struggle—of all Paris’s poor. They sing:

At the end of the day you’re another day older
And that’s all you can say for the life of the poor
It’s a struggle, it’s a war . . .

At the end of the day there’s another day dawning
And the sun in the morning is waiting to rise . . .

Unable to find work because of his criminal status, Valjean is caught stealing silver candlesticks from a kindly bishop, who in turn not only pardons Valjean but gives him the silver and admonishes him to reform his life. This too seems to be taken straight from the liberation theology playbook—the Church responding to poverty and crime with a temporal, economic solution:

I have bought your soul for God.

Meanwhile, though the source of the oppression is a tad ambiguous, the poor of Paris are ripe for revolution against it . . .

There’s a reckoning still to be reckoned
And there’s gonna be hell to pay
At the end of the day!

 . . . as are the idealistic students of Paris . . .

With all the anger in the land
How long before the judgment day?
Before we cut the fat ones down to size?

They don’t explicitly mention the workers’ controlling the means of production, but you get the message. Enjolras, their leader, longs for the “day of salvation,” in which the people rise up against their oppressors to create a new age of justice—an egalitarian “tomorrow” in which “every man will be a king.” Putting a political twist on a spiritual adage, they proclaim,

The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France!

So the setup is seemingly in place; all the revolutionary tropes are present and accounted for. But then a funny thing happens: The revolution fails. Paris’s masses do not join the demonstrations at the barricade, and the students are slaughtered. It turns out the new day of freedom can’t be won by temporal efforts. As women clear the streets and collect the bodies of the dead, they lament,

They were schoolboys
Never held a gun
Fighting for a new world
That would rise up like the sun
Where’s that new world
Now the fighting’s done?

And Marius, the only student to survive (thanks to Valjean’s heroism), is left to face not only the loss of his friends but the realization that their plans for a heaven on earth were doomed from the start:

Here they talked of revolution
Here it was they lit the flame
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.

Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for . . .

But—and here’s the twist—all hope is not lost. Marius’s grief and would-be nihilism are salved by a lesson in true freedom: Valjean’s witness of faith and self-sacrificial love. Valjean has borne injustice without bitterness; he has forgiven and spared his oppressors; he has given his life to raise and protect Cosette; he has trusted God to direct his future.

And so, as he lies dying, Fantine’s spirit appears and promises him the salvation for which the students had striven in vain:

Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief
At last, at last behind you.

Then the finale, in which Marius and Cosette join the company of the righteous dead in a reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing”—but the changed lyrics now evoke heaven, not earth; now the “world beyond the barricade” is no longer a temporal utopia of justice and equality, but the true eschaton. It is worth reproducing several stanzas in their entirety:

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the plough-share
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward!

Enjolras was right: The day of salvation was near. But perfect justice, like perfect happiness, can only be found in the next life. 

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