Two of my favourite books are hitting the big screen this year, which is always a nervous thing for a literature fan. Last week I saw the first of the two, Les Miserables, and was reminded of all that I love about the story and it’s powerful way of portraying the themes that run right through what we believe. The over riding theme of grace is so strong, and it’s being communicated so powerfully to so many people, that it can’t pass uncommented on. (J.John, a far more august mind than my own, has written on the topic already and it’s great to read his blog.) I want to look not at the big sweep of the theme, but at a specific thing that I think should always be central to what we do as both individual Christians and when collected as the church. Will we be willing to show grace when our sense of justice is challenged by it?
At the core of the story is Inspector Javert, a man relentlessly absorbed with what is “right”. He has dedicated his life to see that the rule of law is observed and justice is maintained. Indeed, there is much in Javert that should be good and yet we find him intensely focussed on revenge, a bleak character who stands so vocally for goodness and yet is not good. And there, wrapped up in this literary creation, is a biblical type. He is the older brother from the parable of the prodigal son, he is the Pharisee shouting at the Messiah for healing on the Sabbath, the crowd waiting to hurl their stones at the woman accused of adultery. More scarily, he can so easily be me and he could just as easily be you.
Javert destroys himself because he cannot comprehend grace, forgiveness or mercy. His world view is black and white and fails to include the shades of grey in which humanity is invariably found. Even faced with acts of grace and mercy towards himself, he cannot comprehend a world not bound entirely by the letter of the law. It’s easy for us to denounce his behaviour, but what happens when a thief enters our lives, or a murderer, or a prostitute? Does our door mat still say welcome when the foot that treads on it belongs to an ex-con, a drug dealer, a pimp? Do our hearts still recognise them as worthy of forgiveness and a second, third or seven hundred and forty ninth chance? It’s easy to show a grace to victims, that comes from sympathy, but what about the perpetrators? Are they less worthy of grace?
Here is an interesting thought: Would we be open to the idea that someone who buys and sells human beings and sends them to spend their whole lives as sex slaves may end up in the seat next to us at church? That they may one day worship and enjoy the life of a Christian while those who they sold into suffering remain there? Are we ready to see the people whose acts we campaign against become part of our communities? I’m not trying to be controversial, it’s happened before: John Newton was a slave trader who came to Christ and whose life was transformed. The song Amazing Grace exists as a testament to the fact that every sinner can receive it.
Honestly? That challenges me. I can forgive people who hurt me, it’s hard sometimes but I know that it’s what I must do, it’s the desire of God. But you hurt my friends? Bro, you’re a marked man. I’m trying to forgive you while at the same time, in my mind I’m hog-tying you and dropping you in the river. You traffick young girls and sell them as prostitutes? I’m wondering if I can get a cache of assault weapons and go Liam Neeson on your derrière. Grace can be insanely hard to outwork in the nitty gritty of daily life. But Grace is not an optional extra, it’s got to be who we are.
If we want to be part of the kingdom we have to get used to the fact that it’s made up of redeemed sinners – people like us. If we look at the bible we find a God who delights in using thieves, murderers and prostitutes; He extends His grace to people and changes them entirely so they are no longer what they once were. We can’t have a filter and judge some people as worthy of grace and others as deserving of justice. The truth is we all deserve justice and we all have the opportunity of grace. If I decide someone else isn’t worthy of it? I rule out myself too.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Romans 3:23-24 (ESV)
In Inspector Javert’s world once you have done wrong you are marked for life and the slightest discretion condemns you forever, you would be damned. But God offers the opposite, He is the hope of all humanity. By sending Jesus, God satisfied justice at the same time as being merciful. Only He could do that. We must choose, do we want everyone to get their just deserts, or do we want to practice grace, forgiveness and mercy?
Grace is crazy. It’s scandalous that Barabbas walked free while Christ hung and died, it’s scandalous that I walk free because Christ has already paid off my debt. We can’t separate one act of grace from another because the very nature and beauty of grace is that none of us deserved it. It only works if it is available to all. We become sanctified and spotless not because we’re any better than anyone else, but because we know someone that is. The challenge for us it to live our daily lives in a way this shines through, especially to those society says deserve it least.