We saw the Broadway revival of Les Miserables with our children and other family members a short while ago. It provided an opportunity to reflect on some of the themes of the show, and Victor Hugo’s story, that I had not earlier appreciated. There is more religious thought in the story than I remembered, for example. God is invoked repeatedly, and the bishop’s display of piety is one of the most important episodes in the narrative; at the same time, there are a number of exclamations that God is dead, not listening, or non-existent. The bottom line when it comes to the religious thought of the show may be the very last line: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” This is a sentiment that is religious, but actually non-theological, in nature, and serves to save religion without having to find God. This may be the theology of the book of Ruth, as well, in which God is repeatedly invoked by the characters but never actually appears or does anything. Instead, God has been replaced in that book by hesed, the fealty and responsibility that leads people to take care of each other, even in dire times, even when they could selfishly sidestep that responsibility. One might say, for the author of Ruth, “To perform hesed for another person is to take the place of God.”
The theme that I want to comment on here, however, is that captured in the person of Javert. Javert is, of course, the police captain who reappears throughout the show, primarily as the adversary of Jean Valjean, the reformed criminal turned hero. What gives Javert his power as a character is that he is not at all evil. Instead, he represents justice. He believes that sinners must be punished. This sense of justice, it turns out, runs up against some of our most powerful intuitions, which crave mercy and situational forgiveness. The foil for Javert’s character is the bishop, whose merciful lies save Valjean from prison. He is “righteous,” but not “just.”
Javert himself is, late in the story, the beneficiary of mercy, when Valjean could have – and, by most standards, should have – killed him, but instead let him go. Far from liberating Javert from death, however, this act torments him. It calls his entire world view into question. He has always lived by justice, and is now forced to reckon with the fact that he has been granted mercy.
In Hugo’s book, the soliloquy this produces is narrated in the third person:
“He had, in that barricade, the right to be killed…. His supreme anguish was the loss of all certainty…. There was in him a revelation of feeling entirely distinct from the declarations of law, his only standard hitherto…. An entire new world appeared to his soul; favor accepted and returned, devotion, compassion…. He said to himself that it was true then…that everything was not framed in the text of the code…. He was compelled to recognize the existence of kindness….
He asked himself:
This convict…whom I have pursued…and could have avenged himself…in granting me life, in sparing me, what has he done? His duty? No. Something more. And I, in sparing him in my turn, what have I done? My duty? No; something more. Then there is something more than duty. Here he was startled; his balances disturbed.”
As a result, Javert kills himself.
Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony” addresses interestingly similar themes. Here the Officer is in charge of an execution machine which he – and only he – thinks is a preeminently just way of executing condemned prisoners. The machine inscribes the law that has been broken on the body of the condemned in a process that takes 12 hours, and this culminates with the death of the prisoner. Everyone else thinks it is barbaric torture. When the Officer discovers that even the Traveler, whom he has taken into his confidence, does not support the use of this machine, he takes drastic steps. He frees the condemned prisoner strapped into the machine, and straps himself in. Setting the machine to inscribe his body with “Be just,” he submits to death. But the machine malfunctions, and he is killed quickly and violently by being pierced through the forehead with one of the machine’s needles.
Here, too, the embodiment of justice – although in this case, palpably perverse justice – is shattered by the realization that his entire world view is flawed, or at least that he cannot make sense of the world through the lenses he is used to utilizing to make sense of everything. When faced with that reality, the man of justice seeks refuge in death. Perhaps this is just an escape. Perhaps, though, the men of justice believe that they will finally find justice when God is the sole arbiter of such matters. Humans seem to not be strong enough to insist on justice consistently. Surely in heaven, though….
These are precisely the themes of the biblical book of Jonah. Jonah, too, is a man of justice – “the son of Amittai,” the son of truth. Embodied in his name are values of truth, genuineness, authenticity, and exactitude. According to him, sinners must be punished, and mercy is not allowed. When God dispatches Jonah to the sinners in Nineveh to urge them to repent, he refuses to go. Sinners should not be urged to repent; they should be punished. God tracks him down, and he famously spends a few days in the belly of a giant sea creature. Back on dry land, Jonah reluctantly makes his way to Nineveh, where he proclaims, elliptically and ambiguously, “In forty days Nineveh will be overturned.” As the midrash observes, “overturned” could be either through repentance or through destruction.
While Jonah is watching Nineveh, he is graced with a divine gift, a large leafy plant to protect him from the sun. The plant is then desiccated by a fierce hot wind, and Jonah laments the loss. At this stage, the point is made, although Jonah, unlike Javert and Kafka’s Officer, needs to have it explained to him by God. As the beneficiary of an act of grace, of a gift he did not deserve, Jonah should now understand that the world cannot be governed by justice alone. Mercy, grace, and undeserved forgiveness are all needed in the imperfect world.
The story of Jonah son of Amittai, then, like Les Miserables and “In the Penal Colony,” is one about the tension between competing values. Yonah is the son of truth, the paragon of truthful living and the champion of actions having reactions, behaviors having consequences, sins having punishments, and good deeds having rewards. He learns from God, however, that there must be a human component, an understanding of the frailties and fallibilities of people, in order for truth to be workable in the real world.