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Javert’s Progeny

For those who are interested in the tug of war between Fundamentalism and Catholicism (and all Christians should be) a beautiful illustration of the antithesis between these world views is available for the price of tickets to one of the most popular musical plays in recent times, Les Miserables.

Besides being an excellent portrayal of God’s grace operating in our lives, Les Miserables places before the audience the stark contrast between the Fundamentalist concept of a justified human soul, resolute in purpose and free from inner conflicts, and the Catholic concept of a soul in continual rebellion, struggling to surrender itself to God.

The Fundamentalism spoken of here is not that broad and varied communion of Christians who simply profess the “fundamentals” of Christianity such as the deity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the Second Coming, but a narrower, consistently conservative group that stresses the total deprivation of human nature and the assurance of salvation for God’s elect.

These Christians turn a gimlet eye upon their fellow man and are not shy about marking out the sinners. They operate in striking contrast to Catholics who seem to dispense charity while leaving another man’s sin to his own conscience and to God. The sins that Catholics think of most are their own. It is these differing personalities that appear in Les Miserables–the Fundamentalist in the person of police inspector Javert, and the Catholic as the convict Jean Valjean.

For those who have yet to see the play or read the book, perhaps a brief overview is in order: Valjean, condemned for stealing a loaf of bread, spends years in prison only to become, when released, an outcast with a convict’s passport. He turns to crime again and steals silver plates from an old bishop who was the only one to take him in.

When the police return him to the bishop’s house with the plates, the bishop, instead of accusing him, joins Valjean in his lie that the plates had been a gift and then gives him two silver candlesticks as well, murmuring, “See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.” Valjean is thunderstruck. In all his life, this is the first act of charity shown to him; although he sins again directly, it starts him on his road to Calvary. He travels that road for the rest of his life, and all along the way he is pursued for his last crime (the theft of 40 sous from a child and thus the breaking of his parole) by Javert, who is as severe and relentless as the nineteenth-century judicial system he represents. There is more to this story, but it is in these two souls, Valjean and Javert, that is found the contrast between the Catholic and the Fundamentalist, both in the way they perceive the world and the way they perceive each other. 

Black, White, and Gray

Javert represents Fundamentalism because for Javert all things are black and white, never gray. In Victor Hugo’s novel upon which this play is based, he is described as a man of “fierce honesty” who has “marked out a straight path through the most tortuous thing in the world.” That tortuous thing is a human conscience, in his case “unenlightened, but stern and pure.”

He is a man who knows without a doubt that he stands on the side of justice, and from that promontory he divides all of mankind into one of two categories, either good or evil. To Javert, a man or a woman can be one or the other, never a mixture of the two. He knows Valjean by his deeds to be evil, and he pursues him like an archangel who flies in the malefactor’s wake through all his years. Javert’s Fundamentalism is not only apparent in his secular duties in marking and tracking criminals, but it also reflects the sort of severe Christian Fundamentalism as articulated in Calvin’s concept of “election,” which divides all of humanity, irretrievably from conception, into one of two categories–saved or damned. 

In Fear and Trembling

In contrast to this, Valjean is quintessentially Catholic because he fits into neither category–he is neither saved nor damned while he lives, but is always working it out. He comes to know the existence of God through grace and then moves toward God through cooperation with that grace. He hands over his life to God in pieces. He exhibits an almost boundless charity, but when he finds himself at the intersection of good and evil he sometimes makes a false turn.

Late in life, when he is faced with the choice of letting someone who is mistaken for him go to the galleys in his place or, by speaking up, of forfeiting all that he has gained by living virtuously, a terrific inner struggle ensues before he resolves to hand himself over. He has cut no straight path across his conscience, but instead tries to shut his conscience out. When this fails, he wrestles with it like Jacob with the angel, and only when he is exhausted does he finally say “Lord bless me.”

This is the thing that Javert cannot g.asp–that a good man can be tempted, can hesitate when the way of justice is apparent, that salvation can take a lifetime, that the most despicable creature may be a saint in the making, that we never can know about anyone’s salvation until we all stand before our Creator, that salvation is never guaranteed absolutely, that, no matter how long we live as Christians, if we look into our own souls deeply enough we are likely to find sin there, sin that we should and, with grace, can work to remove–this is the Catholic way.

The Catholic way leads away from self-confidence and toward humility and therefore leads the Catholic to examine the condition of his own soul and to assume that he is in a position inferior to his fellow man. Thus we see among the Catholic saints a humility so deep that it has been described as almost a cult of humility. The Fundamentalist way, with its belief in assured salvation, leads toward self-confidence and sets the Fundamentalist free to scrutinize those around him. In feeling that he is assured of his personal salvation he tends to feel not necessarily that he is superior to his fellow man, but at least that he is in a superior condition. 

No Villains, just Sinners

It is not hard to guess what happens when these two types cross paths. One is instinctively a hunter, the other has all the outward characteristics of suitable prey, and the inevitable chase can have all the drama and import of Javert’s chase of Valjean. This is not meant to be a judgment on either type, that one is bad and one good. It only shows that these two ways of interpreting Christianity produce diametrically opposed types of Christians.

It is true that from both the play and book one could infer that Javert is a villain since Valjean is truly the hero, but this not the case. Javert is merely the antagonist, and actually both men are good men if good means recognizing God as the Creator of order in the universe and submitting to him.

Both men pray to God–in the play Javert’s prayer in the song “Stars” is the prayer of a fierce and honest heart–both men ask for God’s assistance, both do their best to do God’s will, not their own, and both men set doing God’s will above all else–above riches, reputation, even above doing material good for the poor, a concept almost foreign to modern Christendom. The tragedy is not that one man is good and one is bad; it is that they understand God so differently that they cannot understand each other, when under other circumstances they could have loved one another each for the same reason, their faithfulness to God. 

The Second Most Sacred Thing

So it is with Fundamentalists and Catholics. The difference between Javert and what we call Fundamentalists is that, whereas Javert saw Jean Valjean as irredeemable and pursued him only to bring him to justice, the Fundamentalist sees the Catholic as redeemable and therefore pursues him to bring him to Christ. In each case there is a failure to recognize the essential good in a fellow man and an inability to see that he may be coming to Christ in his own way.

Here again the contrast between Fundamentalism and Catholicism is apparent. Someone, perhaps C. S. Lewis, said that the most sacred thing that you encounter in this world, next to the Eucharist, is your neighbor, and he was not talking about your Christian neighbor, but any neighbor. This is a simple but startling reminder that man, even in his most fallen state, is still the most precious creation of God.

This is also the reason why Catholics tend to evangelize gently as if retrieving a gem from an encasement of clay with brush strokes that bring it to light without marring its surface. This delicate approach is displaced in Fundamentalism by the belief that human nature is totally depraved, so depraved that even its best deeds are no better than sins. It is this belief that leads the Fundamentalist to manhandle the sinner and to evangelize by confrontation rather than by persuasion. He attempts to shake the sinner into his senses.

One way says that you should come to God because you are God’s most precious creation, the other that you should come to God because you are debased without him. There is truth in both statements, but it is the first that most easily makes the sinner the object of our love. 

A Truncated Faith

Beyond these differences, the Fundamentalist tends to discount ninety percent of Catholic teaching on the sacraments, sacred Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church, and he replaces this teaching with a narrower Christianity that consists primarily of accepting Jesus Christ as a personal Savior, knowing that you are saved by your faith alone, and thereafter having no need for any act, ceremony, or institution with regard to your personal salvation. What is needed (not for salvation, but to serve God) is to read the Word of God, live a righteous life, and evangelize, evangelize, evangelize.

Needless to say, no Catholic would describe his faith in this manner. Neither would many Evangelicals and other Protestants who also understand salvation to be through the cooperation of the human will with the operation of divine grace.

Fundamentalism seeks to place a sterner face on Christianity. It does not propose a stricter standard, since Christ is the standard for all Christians, but it proposes to place all of mankind under a stricter scrutiny. It seeks to draw a line across the world, one that will bisect even the parish, and it offers a formula for determining who is on which side of that line right now by asking for an impossible certitude in the answer to the question, “Are you saved?”

Against this Catholicism provides a historical picture of Christianity that is quite different. The line is still there, but it can be known only at final judgment and it is drawn by God. Christ himself will tell us who is on which side. Until then, while we live we work out our salvation and strive for holiness through the imitation of Christ. What is required is not faith alone, but faith and love. Through love we best imitate Christ. So it is for Christians of all denominations: To the degree they seek to sanctify themselves and love their neighbors they will participate in the conversion of the world. It is their lives thus lived that will, if anything can, eventually convince Fundamentalists that their non-Fundamentalist brethren are indeed Christian.

The life lived by Valjean eventually convinces Javert that this is indeed a man who loves and is loved by God. His tender, unqualified care given to a prostitute and her child, his mercy and charity extended to all, even to Javert as he is arresting him, soften Javert’s hard exterior and tame what Victor Hugo referred to as the “legal tiger” in his heart. 

Mortal Mercy

In the end, Javert recognizes nothing less than the mercy of Christ in the mercy of Valjean. In so doing he finds himself compelled to respond with his own first act of mercy, the release of Valjean. Javert does not survive this transition. He has lived too long in a world of black and white to step easily into a world of shadows. He reaches but he falls, and his first spark of mercy is snuffed out in the waters of Seine. We can be sure that if he had been able to g.asp the world that was revealed to him, the spark would have turned into a forest fire. His fierce honesty would have demanded it. This is the potential that exists within Fundamentalism, and, from the Catholic perspective, the first spark will come when Fundamentalists recognize Catholics and other non-Fundamentalists as Christians who love and are loved by God.

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