Monday, February 18, 2013

The political eschatology of Les Misérables

From Toledo, IA, USA
Eschatology at the barricade; Photo by Laurie Sparham/
Here in the little town of Toledo, we have a local treasure: The Wieting Theater. It's been in town for ages, but had started to fall on hard times and was threatened to close until a few years ago when local citizens and the theater guild - who didn't want to see this public gathering place die at the hands of a 60" HDTV in every home - got organized. Because of their efforts, today we have a beautifully restored classic small-town theater with a state-of-the-art digital audio and projection system, and a great stage for the periodic live performances that run. The movies are usually a few months behind, but for someone like me who couldn't care less about seeing most movies right when they come out (except "The Hobbit"), this is fine.

Well this past weekend, the recent movie production of Les Misérables was at the Wieting. My wife went on Friday night with a few other gals, came home and said "I'm going again tomorrow night." So Saturday night, my wife, daughter, and I caught it together.

It is stunning. It is incredible. Wow. There are a hundred directions this could go for me, but I want to focus on something peculiar I noticed at the end of the movie, having to do with eschatology or "kingdom(s) coming, on earth as in heaven." But first a bit of set-up...

The political theology of Les Mis

What Richard Beck said last month about the political theology of Les Mis still speaks to me, and his reflections are worth reading in full. But to summarize: Beck puts on a continuum the political-theological motivations and aspirations of the revolutionaries (including Enjolras and Marius) with that of the "law and order" approach of Javert. Both parties are looking to the state to enact their political-theological vision of the good/just/blessed society, and Beck helpfully points out how both approaches abstract themselves from actually existing people; in this case, les misérables - the poor/wretched/victims suffering in the gutter in 19th century France, who form a significant backdrop to the story, and whose plight is personified especially in Fantine and Cosette.

The revolutionaries fail because "the people" don't show up as they had imagined they inevitably would, and their rebellion is crushed. Javert fails because of his being bent on revenge, a slavish adherence to the law, and his failure to see Valjean's repeated acts of grace as just that. Instead of receiving them as grace and gift, Javert is tormented to his own demise by Valjean's merciful actions toward him. Mercy simply does not have a place in Javert's view on the order of creation.

Short-circuiting this continuum, and getting the stamp of approval in the narrative, is of course the person and work Jean Valjean. After receiving saving grace (simultaneously material and spiritual) from the priest, Valjean repents and reforms his life, going on to imitate this very personal (but still public, political, and theological) form of grace that he experienced from the priest. This is seen in his dealings with Fantine, Cosette, Javert, and Marius. Beck calls this the political theology of "the two candlesticks," the symbols of Valjean's deliverance (that are deliberately visible at later points in the movie).

"Thy kingdom come..." (spoiler alert?)

Things got weird, though, for my Christian imagination at the very end of the movie. Valjean dies in the company of his dear Cosette and her Marius, both of whom he had saved from certain ruin. In his parting moments, he sees Fantine appear in an angelic form, bidding him come and have rest as well as offering intercessory prayers for him. He rises from his dying earthly self, walks out of the room in the convent, and sees across the courtyard the very priest who had saved him years before. He is lifting his arms to Valjean in a Christ-life pose of welcome and embrace. We are clearly in other-worldly territory here, yet still located on what appears to be the same terrestrial plane.

Then for the stirring finale, the scene shifts back to the barricade in the square  - where the first shots of revolution had been fired. Yet we're still in this vision of "heaven on earth," and the "cloud of witnesses/martyrs" sing their hearts out. What strikes me is who's there and who's not there. We've already seen the priest and Fantine, but now we also see the revolutionaries who were murdered/martyed by forces of the French state. We do not see those dead soldiers, and we do not see Javert.

The point seems to be this: ¡viva la (violent) revolucíon! (Apologies for conflating revolutions and languages, here...)

True, the lyrics of the finale at the barricade offer the familiar eschatological refrain of the Bible - swords into plowshares, living in the garden of the Lord, etc. But those on screen seem to indicate that history and theology are on the side of the revolutionaries. And even Valjean - who walked the more righteous path, subverting the state-focused political theologies of both the revolutionaries and Javert - gets folded into the eschatology of the violent revolutionaries. That kingdom has come on earth (as it is in heaven?), and saintly, (mostly) peaceable Valjean is raptured there.

And the Christological pacifist in me goes, "Hmm, isn't that interesting..."

[Update: This post got picked up by the blog for the Political Theology journal. Thanks to all the great conversation on this post, some of which made it into minor edits in the re-posting. -BG, 2/25/13]

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