Law and Les Miserables Revisited
Rather than seeing Javert as a law-riddled villain and Valjean an anti-law or post-law hero, we should see two different approaches to law: one fueled by God's grace and the pursuit of mercy and true righteousness, the other fueled by anger and self-righteousness.
One of those approaches reflects the law in the Bible. When Moses gave Israel laws, he began by stressing God's gracious redemption of his people. When Jesus commanded others to lay down their lives, he only did so on the basis of the fact that he was doing the same for them. As Old Testament scholar Jay Sklar puts it, biblical laws "are windows into the heart of the lawgiver."
Many contemporary Christians see law primarily in negative terms, wrongly taking Paul's relegation of Old Testament Law—Torah—in Romans 6-7 as a rejection of any sort of command or law. But in Hugo's story, obeying Jesus' commands becomes a vehicle for grace or mercy in the case of Hugo's priest and, consequently, Valjean.
Or again, what if a healthy approach to law--an approach infused with beauty and grace--is possible, and contributes to the creation of a more merciful world? James K. A. Smith, philosophy professor at Calvin College, tweeted, "I must be a terrible person because I have remarkable sympathy for Javert. #LesMis". In conversation with Cosper, Alissa Wilkinson of The King's College, Makoto Fujimura and others on Twitter, Smith pointed out that some celebrations of the story seemed to reject law wholesale, leaving little room for the vital cultural task of lawmaking and the pursuit of justice. A radical dichotomy between law and grace can be unhelpful and culturally damaging, if uncritically accepted.
Joe Rigney, a professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, rightly inquires why we aren't using the label "legalism" (a ruthless, unbiblical application of constraints) instead of "law" to describe Javert. In today's climate, where law and constraint are dirty words and "freedom" and "liberty" are feted and glorified to the point of idolatry, it's all too easy for law to become a derogatory label.
Finally, consider the irony of trying to pit mercy against biblical law. Rigney observes that Jesus' critique of the Pharisees (Matt 23:23) fits Javert: by neglecting mercy and perpetuating injustice, he was showing his disregard for God's law, neglecting what Jesus called "the weightier maters of the law."
It's the law informed by grace and mercy, not pitted against it. We find that law in the Bible; I also think we can see it in Les Miserables.
Jason B. Hood is author of Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern (InterVarsity Press 2013).