Jesus, the Law, and “Les Miserables” of Today

Les-Miserables[1]

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 62; 1-5; Ps. 96: 1-3, 7-10; I Cor. 12: 4-11; Jn. 2: 1-11

During our family’s recent Christmas trip to France, we spent a couple of evenings watching “on location” films. We saw Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and loved it. Owen Wilson did such a good job of imitating Allen himself. And seeing Wilson wander through the famous sites we were passing each day was great fun.

But on a more serious note, we also took in “Les Miserables” which was such a success back in 2013. At the Golden Globes that year, “Les Miserables” won the “best film” award in the category of musicals and comedies. Hugh Jackson was named best actor for his portrayal of Jean Valjean. Anne Hathaway won best supporting actress for her role as Fantine. She went on to win an Oscar as well.

Watching the film in France this time made it especially poignant. I ended up in quiet tears at its conclusion.

“Les Miserables” is Victor Hugo’s familiar tale of Jean Valjean, a Christ figure intimately connected with today’s Gospel reading about Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana.

Following the royal restoration after the French Revolution of 1789, Valjean was convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving children. He was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in the most brutal conditions.

Having completed his sentence under the watchful and threatening eye of the cruel Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe in the film), a bitter and vengeful Valjean journeyed homeward. As he passed through the town of Digne, he was given food and shelter by the kindly Bishop Myriel, the pastor of the local cathedral.

But Valjean is not impressed. He rises in the dead of night, steals the bishop’s silverware and candelabra, and flees the rectory. Soon he’s captured by the gendarmes. When he’s dragged back to the bishop by the police, Bishop Myriel secures Valjean’s release by confirming the thief’s lie that the stolen goods had been given him as a gift by the priest. Valjean cannot believe his ears. The bishop’s act of generosity, forgiveness, and mercy transforms him. He goes on to become a successful factory owner and champion of the poor.

However the former convict has broken his parole. So he’s pursued by his prison tormentor, Inspector Javert. Javert is determined to return Valjean to chains. The inspector is a lawman in the strictest sense of the word. He believes he is doing God’s work in pursuing Valjean, and often prays for success in his mission.

Nonetheless towards the film’s end, Javert falls into Valjean’s hands. His former ward has the opportunity to kill Javert with impunity for opposing the People in their revolution against the French crown. Yet Valjean refuses to do so, opting instead to follow the example of bishop Myriel, even though releasing Javert means Valjean will likely return to prison.

Javert can neither believe nor accept Valjean’s generosity. In his eyes, since the law has been broken, Valjean must pay the price. Yet Valjean has acted towards him with such generosity. . . . Javert doesn’t know how to handle such kindness. His life dedicated to law enforcement now seems entirely wasted in the light of Valjean’s compassion and wonderful disregard of the law. Confused and disheartened Javert commits suicide.

Of course, Victor Hugo’s tale is much more complex than that – and much more beautiful. (The singing and lyrics are gorgeous!) But that’s the story’s kernel – a portrayal of a conflict between love, compassion, and mercy on the one hand and respect for the law on the other. That’s what makes it relevant to today’s Gospel.

There we find Jesus attending a wedding. With the other revelers at this feast of seven days, he’s been dancing, singing, eating and drinking already for days. Then the wine runs out. The party is in danger of losing its spirit; the guests will go home; the bridal couple will be disgraced. So Jesus responds to the alcohol shortage by providing about 200 gallons of the best wine the partiers had ever tasted. Significantly, he takes the large stone vessels full of water for ritual washing according to Jewish law, and turns that water into wine. As a result, the fun never stops. And believers have never ceased telling this story – the very first of Jesus’ “signs” as John calls them. We’ve come consider them miracles.

But let’s take John at his word. He sees this rather trivial event at what turns out to be Jesus’ coming out party as a sign, a symbol, a metaphor. . . . (I say “trivial” because on its surface nothing “great” is accomplished. A party is saved from petering out. Some friends – the bridal couple and their families – save face. But was that worth this exercise of divine power?) Nevertheless, John says this is a sign. But of what?

The answer, of course, is that changing water into wine so early in John’s story constitutes an image providing indication of Jesus’ entire mission as John understands it. Jesus’ mission is to obey the spirit of the law even when that means disobeying its letter.

In John’s poetic narrative, the letter of the law is cold, hard, and insipid – as hard and frigid as the stone vessels John takes care to mention, and as tasteless as water in comparison with wine. But it’s even worse than that. The law as Jesus will criticize it in John’s pamphlet is routinely used against the poor (people like Valjean in Hugo’s tale) – the lepers, prostitutes, beggars, Samaritans, tax collectors, and the generally “unclean.” The law is used to oppress “Les Miserables.” Meanwhile, the privileged and elite use legalisms for their own benefit – to enrich themselves and elevate their prestige. Jesus, John is saying, has come to transform all of that.

He has come to change the water of the law’s letter into everything wine symbolizes. The wine of Jesus’ teaching and life is meant to lift the spirit. (It’s not for nothing that alcohol is called “spirits.”) Wine is red like blood not colorless and neutral like water. Wine relieves pain. It evokes laughter, and singing and dancing as it did for the revelers at the Cana wedding feast. Wine enlivens life which, John implies, has more to do with a seven-day party than with what happens in the Temple (or our churches!).

We need to be reminded of all that don’t we? That’s especially true today when the law is used so clearly against the poor, while the rich typically escape its reach. Think about the way our political “leaders” villainize the world’s most impoverished people. They tell us that the dirt poor are the cause of the very problems they and their rich friends have produced. (For example, the poor had nothing to do with the Great Recession whose disastrous effects are still ruining the lives of the poor and middle classes.)

Even worse, the coalition of the rich creates refugees by sending planes, missiles and drones to destroy the homes, schools, hospitals of already desperate people throughout the Middle East and Global South. They overthrow the governments the poor have elected, and afterwards install dictators and drug lords to take their places. Then they complain when the refugees they’ve created seek escape in countries like our own.

In the process, distressed mothers and their children are described as drug dealers, gang members, and murderers. So, in the name of unjust laws, our leaders rationalize the separation of pre-teens from their parents and even create baby jails. Meanwhile, the business of privatized prisons prospers, while their dungeons are increasingly filled with the poor and minorities.

In the meantime, the those who dedicate their lives to exposing such crimes are treated like Jesus and Valjean. The Julian Assanges and Chelsea Mannings — the whistle-blowers of the world – are arrested, tortured and threatened with life imprisonment. “The law is the law,” the criminal arresters remind us. Once again, it’s the story of Jesus and Jean Valjean all over again.

Like “Les Miserables,” John’s story of Cana can raise our consciousness about all of that. The tale of water turned into wine can move us to defend the poor, powerless, imprisoned and whistle-blowers that the law routinely oppresses. Jesus’ example calls us to celebrate “spirit,” and feasts, and food, laughter and dancing. It invites us to destroy by our own hands the law-worshipping Javert who resides within each of us.

Both John the Evangelist and Victor Hugo call us to imitate those who dedicate their scandalous lives to obeying the Spirit of God’s Law by disobeying the letter of human law.

The New York Times on Drones: In Defense of Mafia Face-to-Face Hits

One of the unmanned drones in the growing U.S. arsenal

The New York Times recently  published an article called “The Moral Case for Drones.” It was authored by one if its national security reporters, Scott Shane. As the title indicates, the piece’s intention was to argue that U.S. drone policy is indeed morally defensible. However the article refused to address the really difficult moral issues. It concentrated instead on providing a rather obvious response to the question whether the use of drones avoids the wholesale slaughter of civilians that has been associated with modern warfare since the U.S. Civil War.

Of course it does! Is there anyone who would argue that carefully calibrated drone use would be worse than the direct targeting of civilians that occurred in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? However by focusing on the “lesser of two evils” approach and resolving it in favor of drones, Mr. Shane’s article leaves inattentive readers with the impression that drone policy is somehow moral and humane.

But what about those other questions?

For instance, nowhere in the article does Mr. Shane even gesture towards the basic moral issue (not to mention its constitutional counterpart) of whether or not the President of the United States actually possesses the authority to order extrajudicial assassinations by drone or any other means. If the President claims that authority, do we accord that same right to any head of state — even if he or she decides that Mr. Obama himself is an international outlaw?

But that’s not the only issue the Times article chooses to ignore. In fact, it begins by bracketing a whole host of moral questions about drone use. Mr. Shane opens by saying:
 

“For streamlined, unmanned aircraft, drones carry a lot of baggage these days, along with their Hellfire missiles. Some people find the very notion of killer robots deeply disturbing. Their lethal operations inside sovereign countries that are not at war with the United States raise contentious legal questions. They have become a radicalizing force in some Muslim countries. And proliferation will inevitably put them in the hands of odious regimes.”

At the outset, then, the Times author mentions some of the real issues only to set them aside. What about remote control assassinations? What are the moral implications of human agents making life and death decisions safely sequestered in air conditioned locations thousands of miles from the kill zone? Does it make a moral difference that justification comes from questionable sources, or that such justification is frequently circumstantial, based on hearsay, and often amounts to guilt by association? Is it a moral issue that the executioners’ decisions might be erroneously or casually made since they are immediately based on information provided by devices resembling video game screens?

Similarly removed from moral analysis is the fact that lethal operations inside sovereign countries not at war with the United States are not only “contentious” (as the article admits), but clearly contravene international law, not to mention the U.N. Charter. Is it possible to make a “moral case” in such a context? Wouldn’t that be like waxing eloquent about the moral case for face-to-face Mafia hits rather than spraying restaurants with machine gun fire? Like their drone equivalents, such hits successfully avoid all that messy collateral damage. However both types of extra-judicial killings are the work of “professionals” who immorally place themselves above the law.

Moreover, in an essay that will make that argument that drones diminish civilian casualties, Mr. Shane’s piece from the beginning chooses not to consider whether in the final tally, drones actually increase civilian casualties. Are the civilian deaths caused by such terrorists not to be calculated? Similarly what about the casualties caused by making drone technology available to those “odious regimes?” Their leaders find the United States similarly “odious.” Will the civilian casualties they cause seem thankfully minor when representatives of those particular agents fly their drones into the Sears Tower in Chicago?

Choosing not to consider such questions is like asking Mrs. Lincoln, “Apart from the assassination, what did you think of the play?”

However such incomplete and inconsiderate “moral analysis” also leads to the conclusion that United States drone policy is (as one of the article’s quoted experts says) “not only ethically permissible but might also be ethically obligatory because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.”

It’s the type of incomplete and deceptive moral analysis that would do Mafia ethicists proud.