Give Me Law Or Give Me Death!
Last night we went to see the most recent film version of Les Miserables. As many viewers have noted, the contrast between law and grace in the film is both pronounced and profound.
For me, the most powerful scene in the movie is Inspector Javert's song right before he kills himself.
Javert embodies our natural addiction to law and our natural aversion to grace. Committed to the rigorous inflexibility of the law, Javert has been given grace time and time again from the very one he has mercilessly hunted for decades, Jean Valjean. The grace of Valjean haunts and radically disorients Javert.
Who is this man? What sort of devil is he, to have me caught in a trap and choose to let me go free? It was his hour at last to put the seal on my fate, wipe out the past and wash me clean off the slate! All it would take was a flick of his knife. Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life! Damned if I'll live in the debt of a thief! Damned if I'll yield at the end of the chase! I am the Law and the Law is not mocked. I'll spit his pity right back in his face! There is nothing on Earth that we share! It is either Valjean or Javert!
How can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me? This desperate man whom I have hunted … He gave me my life. He gave me freedom. I should have perished by his hand. It was his right. It was my right to die as well. Instead I live … but live in Hell! And 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, and still it trembles! The world I have known is lost in shadow. Is he from heaven or from hell? And does he know … that, granting me my life today, this man has killed me, even so? I am reaching … but I fall. And the stars are black and cold, as I stare into the void of a world that cannot hold. I'll escape now from that world, from the world of Jean Valjean. There is nowhere I can turn, there is no way to go on!
Javert concludes that he would rather die than deal with the disorienting reality of grace … and so he jumps. He chooses death over grace, control over chaos.
For Javert (as with all of us), the logic of law makes sense. We love the "if/then" proposition: "If" you do this, "then" I will do that. We love "what-goes-around-comes-around" conditionality. It makes us feel safe. It's easy to comprehend. It makes perfect sense to our grace-shy hearts. It's makes life formulaic. It breeds a sense of manageability. And best of all, it keeps us in control. We get to keep our ledgers and scorecards.
The logic of grace, on the other hand, is incomprehensible to our law-locked hearts. Grace is thickly counter-intuitive. It feels risky and unfair. It wrestles control out of our hands. It is wild and unsettling. It turns everything that makes sense to us upside-down and inside-out. Law says, "Good people get good stuff; bad people get bad stuff." Grace says, "The bad get the best; the worst inherit the wealth; the slave becomes a son." This offends our deepest sense of justice and rightness.
Tullian Tchividjian is pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.