New Impressions of Les Misérables

What a wonderful story. I wrote a paper in college about it, having seen the musical in high school and read the book. As usual, I think I could do a much better job now. My dear wife and I indulged in a rare date tonight to see the new movie. I want to summarize a few of my impressions now while they are still fresh.

One of the great themes I caught back in college was the theme of freedom, but I don’t remember seeing that it’s so nuanced and pervasive in this story. So many characters have a deep connection with freedom. The chief character, Jean Valjean, starts the story at the end of his 19-year prison sentence. Though he is released from prison, he finds that freedom still eludes him, and he carries a resentful hatred of all that subjected him to his unjust prison sentence.

The lawman who released and pursues Valjean through most of the story is iconic of the law. Named Javert, he believes himself already free and above those who must be subjected to the due punishments for their sins. To Javert, Valjean can never be free because his crime has permanently defined his personal character.

The students in the barricades with Marius consider themselves to be fighting for the freedom of the common people. In their point of view, the bourgeoisie and the king have denied freedom to the poor of the land. The students hope to obtain freedom for the downtrodden through bloody revolution, as the French people had seen before.

We could also bring in Fantine and Eponine, and even the Thenardiers. Each has a position in the story that relates to freedom of one kind or another. Each either struggles to become free somehow (Fantine in her misery and Eponine in her unrequited love), or believes he is already free (the Thenardiers in their profligate theft).

But here’s the question: Which of the characters finds true freedom in this story, during the course of the story? The ending hints that many of them are in heaven, but who finds freedom before then?

The obvious answer is Valjean. But more importantly, how does he find this freedom, in contrast to the way others either pursue it or think they have already obtained it? Here’s where it gets really interesting, at least from the perspective of the Christian faith.

Valjean first thought that true freedom was freedom from injustice such as he suffered. He was wrong.

Javert believed that freedom was the same as outward righteousness, but that turned out to be a fragile thing.

The students seeking political and economic freedom through rebellion against the rightful authority found that rebellion cannot obtain it.

So obedience to the law can’t make you free in the end, and neither can rebellion. Those are the two possible responses we can have when we are confronted with the distinction between right and wrong, as we find in natural law, and also summarized in places like the Ten Commandments. We can be inspired to be as good as we might be. But like Javert, we will fail in the end, and find no room for mercy in the law that once inspired us. We can also reject the law and strive against its authority. But like the students on the barricades, we will always find ourselves outgunned. Resist as we may, the law will remain our invincible authority.

Valjean never escaped injustice during his life, but he did stop trying to escape it. In the end, he even submitted his future to the authority of Javert. But despite living with injustice, Valjean is the obvious character who found true peace, and it came from a completely different place than those I’ve previously mentioned. His peace came from God’s forgiveness of his sin. It’s not stated quite as obviously as we find forgiveness conveyed in the average Confessional Lutheran church service, but Valjean’s forgiveness is the foundational event for the entire story, and the reason he found true freedom and peace.

The movie did a great job of symbolizing Valjean’s forgiveness by repeatedly showing those candlesticks, and his strong attachment to them throughout the years of the story. The candlesticks are his most prized possession, because they represent and remind him of the forgiveness God gave him. That forgiveness ended his former life of bitter, hateful resentment against all that was done to him, and it gave him a new life of joy and thankful purpose in service to God. The candlesticks become to Valjean a kind of sacramental artifact, because when they were given to him, they actually carried with them the forgiveness of his sin. He carried them through his life the way every Christian should treasure his baptism.

With the peace of forgiveness, Valjean was free from the guilt of his condemnation. By ripping up his papers and essentially giving them to God, he shows not only that he’s a new man, but a new creation of God’s mercy. No longer does he wish for relief from the world’s injustices. No longer does he resent or hate others for the unfairness poured upon him. That’s why he was able to save Javert’s life and release him. That’s why he was ready to give everything to save Marius, out of a selfless love for Cosette. His freedom does not consist in leaving behind suffering and the cross, but in willingly and joyfully serving others because of his confidence in God’s forgiveness.

Valjean was touched by the merciful hand of a forgiving God, and so became an extension of that hand as God brought mercy and forgiveness to Fantine, to Cosette, to Marius, and to Javert. Fantine died in peace, like Lazarus who had laid at the rich man’s gate his whole life long. Cosette and Marius were the unlikely couple rescued from poverty and abuse on one hand and the romantic error of rebellion on the other hand. Javert was finally killed by the law that had inspired him.

Well, that’s a start anyway. As you can tell, I just love stories like this. They are such compelling expressions of the way God deals with sinners like us.

Thanks, Civil Rights, and Safety

Thanks to everyone who prayed for me recently upon hearing about my unplanned trip to the hospital. I have to admit that I was also a bit alarmed when the EMTs said they thought I was having a heart attack. Thankfully, the heart specialist did not agree. I’ll be following up with our family doc to see if we can identify any other possible causes for my loss of consciousness. I’ve been taking a gently-enforced week off this week at the suggestion of several people at church. I’m thankful and a bit awed that there are so many people who found out about this so quickly, and at the level of support for me and my family. So, thanks be to God first for the excellent medical care He provides for us, and especially for the certainty of eternal life that we have in Jesus Christ. I was absolutely ready to see Him, and utterly confident of His mercy toward a sinner like me (even though I wasn’t so sure about the heart attack thing). Thanks also to the EMTs, doctors, nurses, and other professionals that took such good care of me when minutes might have made a big difference, as far as we knew. Whether they realized it or not, they (like everyone who fulfills their godly vocation on Earth) were acting as the hands of God in service to their neighbor.

Speaking of minutes making a difference, you might have watched the YouTube video I embedded in a recent post about violent attacks. The best 911 response times, when the responders don’t happen to be next-door already, are usually measured in minutes. If you’re confident that you could hold off a violent attacker for as long as it takes without the use of deadly force, then you probably don’t have a dog in the gun control fight that our esteemed President has brought to Washington, D.C, again. But if you think you might want the ability to apply a level of force that could possibly kill, when someone is threatening or using such force upon you and your loved-ones, then you should be deeply interested in the outcome of this latest attempt to undermine the Second Amendment and the civil right of American citizens to keep and bear arms.

My last post here distinguished between reason, emotion, and faith as motivating factors in an argument such as this. The term “assault weapon” is meant to evoke an emotional response. Assault is an attack upon another person. Any weapon used for such a thing might be called an assault weapon. For example, recent statistics have been repeated in several places that hammers and other blunt objects are continually the most frequently-used murder weapons. Or if you prefer, “assault weapons.” The word “assault” produces an emotional response, because it’s something everyone wants to avoid in the context of civil society. The only acceptable context for “assault” is war, so the inventors and purveyors of the term “assault weapon” are trying to argue that whatever weapons they think are so described have no legitimate function in civil society. They are wrong in their use of language, and also wrong in their argument. If you want to be deceived by demagoguery, then by all means, ignore the truth. If you want to avoid being deceived and used as a political tool, then you should learn the truth about this recently-coined term. You can find it here:

It seems that President Obama continues in his attempt to manipulate emotion by gathering with children in front of television cameras. He hopes that we will identify those children with others in our own lives, and visualize the horror of their deaths, and therefore (in his mind) the necessity of outlawing all those nasty guns. Especially “assault weapons.” The President and others who have used children that way (not unlike human shields) hope that this strong emotion will prevent your reason from seeing the great weakness of their rational arguments, and that you will gladly give up some of your civil rights in exchange for his (empty) promise of greater safety for your children.

Let me suggest an alternative emotional response. Those children with President Obama are indeed children who need protection from violence when it happens, and so are the children in your life. Disarming the people who are seconds away from protecting those children actually places them in greater danger. It doesn’t make them any safer. Don’t be disturbed that I seem to be giving the lie to the President’s agenda. It’s not personal, nor based upon his race. If anything, it’s because he’s a politician with a well-meaning but absolutely wrong agenda. He has full faith in the ability of government to solve problems like this, when nobody on Earth can eliminate violence and evil. We already have the best answer for that in the Second Amendment (for when seconds count), in the 911 system (for when minutes will do), and in the justice system (for the aftermath). So if you want to identify with the children used by politicians on this point, a better emotional response is this: decide to protect them from violence by preparing to shoot the perpetrator before he or she tries to harm a child, while you are waiting for the 911 responders to show up.

President Obama proposes to accept all responsibility for the safety of your children (on behalf of law enforcement personnel throughout the country) in exchange for some of your freedom. That’s not the answer, for two reasons. First, the primary responsibility remains yours and mine. Second, it’s an empty promise that neither he nor any other government official, nor the entire force of government in the United States can fulfill, even if we were to become a totalitarian, despotic nation with no civil rights or freedoms reserved for the citizens.

An AR-15 or handgun with plenty of bullets in the magazine, in the hands of a trained and responsible American citizen who happens to be in the right place at the right time, has the potential to save many lives of both children and adults from the acts of one or more violent criminals. As the President and Vice President have said, if something has the potential to save only one life, it’s worth considering. What if it has already saved a great many lives? Then it’s worth keeping.

Now, maybe you don’t trust your fellow citizens to do the right thing. If not, then why would you trust politicians, bureaucrats, and law enforcement personnel to do the right thing? Are they not your fellow citizens too?

If it’s a matter of training, did you know that citizens like you can get trained to the same levels of skill by schools like Front Sight and people like Massad Ayoob? If you’re not comfortable with fellow citizens having such training, then again, why would you be comfortable with any fellow citizen having such training? Law enforcement officers are fellow citizens, too, as are soldiers and sailors.

Maybe your disposition is not compatible with the possibility of dealing with a violent encounter, and you prefer that someone else provide the protection you need. That’s fine. But don’t be fooled into thinking that disarming your law-abiding neighbors will make you any safer. It would make you less safe, because the people who want to harm you will not be disarmed. In fact, the disturbing truth is that those who would harm you don’t even need any particular weapon to do it. If you want to be safer, then encourage your fellow law-abiding citizens to do what is necessary to defend you when the need arises. The same goes for the safety of your children. Statistics bear this out. A pertinent case study in recent decades is Kennesaw, Georgia. Compare the rate of violent crime in those parts of the country where the civil right of bearing arms is curtailed to those parts where it is not. You are safer where more of your neighbors have more guns.

Christians might be disturbed by the possibility of causing the death of another person. The Fifth Commandment says “You shall not murder.” I’ve discussed this at length on this blog, and would refer you to those posts. But in brief, consider what this commandment means (emphasis added). “We should fear and love God, so that we do no bodily harm to our neighbor, but help and befriend him in every need.” Failing to defend your neighbor, including children, is as much a violation of this commandment as the intentional and malicious killing of another human being. Leaving this responsibility entirely to President Obama and law enforcement officers is a de facto abdication of that responsibility, because even with the best of intentions, they cannot defend our lives in every case, and their efforts will almost always be less effective. The bottom line is that the Fifth Commandment requires each of us to assume a personal role in the defense of our own children and every neighbor.

Speaking of guilt, some lawmakers seem to feel guilty when a horrific murder occurs. They assume that a law could have prevented the murder(s), so they try to adjust the laws after the fact. As a pastor, let me assure our lawmakers that you are not responsible for the acts of such monsters. However, if you disarm the victims or those who might have defended them, then you are partly to blame for those deaths. There is no other way to see it. So the people who make schools, shopping malls, or theaters into “gun-free zones” are partly to blame when the victims are defenseless against those who pay no mind to the little “gun-free zone” sign on the door. Man up and bear it, because there’s no other way to see it. But let me also assure you that Jesus Christ died upon His cross to remove the guilt of that sin. In Him, God has forgiven you, just as He forgives lawmakers, and even politicians. Jesus opens the way for you to eternal life, and that fact should now motivate you to do the right thing, while you still can. That’s the motivation of faith.

What to do? If you want to be safer, send a message to your elected representatives at every level that the civil right protected by the Second Amendment is essential to the safety of our citizens and our families. Gun violence is only a small part of the general problem of violence in our country. But when you are confronted with violence of any kind, then your safety and the peace of our society dictates that you also need access to violence in order to protect the lives of innocents. The best way to give you that access is to preserve the Second Amendment in its full force. That’s how to make our society safer for both children and adults.

Reason, Emotion, and Faith

This topic deserves more time than I can give right now, but what else is new? So, these three things in each person can be distinguished from one another, and yet each provides motives on its own that affect our decisions and actions. In case you missed the title of this post, the three things that affect our decisions and actions are reason, emotion and faith.

For example (and I mean that — a case study), in the discourse of Congress at the moment, there are some who are introducing legislation to deny Americans the natural rights protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the rights to keep arms (meaning to own or have them), and to bear arms (meaning to carry them in such a way as to be useful). As in any conversation between conflicting viewpoints, participants make arguments based upon reason, emotion, faith, or some combination. The fact that these proposals are being urgently pressed for adoption before the end of the month is an important clue showing what kind of arguments support them. In this case, the arguments are based upon strong emotions that are likely to dissipate over time.

Reason does not change over time, but sometimes it is clouded by faith or by emotion. Faith changes only as much as the foundation upon which it rests. If your faith is based on the Bible, it also remains unchanged over time and can be summarized in unchanging, written confessions of faith. Faith can also be clouded by reason or by emotion. Emotion changes constantly, depending upon many circumstances. It tends to overpower both reason and faith, which leads to bad decisions and bad theology or spirituality.

The value of emotions is not in the truth of the matter, but in the strength of a person’s commitment. With high emotions, it’s possible for a person to be strongly committed to anything, even when the thing makes no sense according to reason, or contradicts the basis of faith. With low emotions, a person is more able to reason clearly and act accordingly, or to remember the basis of faith and put that into action. For example, an emotion like sympathy can have a very good effect when it causes a person to act toward another person in selfless mercy. However, the same sympathy can also have a bad effect when applied by a judge or a jury to produce an unjust decision in court.

But let’s go back to the example of the opponents to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. By taking advantage of high emotion in the time following a terribly tragic event that has emotionally shocked the whole nation, they hope to advance their agenda of denying a basic civil right to millions of responsible owners of firearms, on the doubtful promise of greater security. Reason looks at the record of all such attempts in the past and concludes that this would work no better. Reason sees the places in the United States where this civil right is already denied, and calmly notices that rather than having increased safety and security, the residents have less of both. Meanwhile, reason notices the places where this civil right is protected, and notices that those citizens have more of the same safety and security being promised by these lawmakers in Congress. In short, reason tells us that these legislative proposals are dead wrong, even if they are motivated by a laudable desire to make people safer.

Emotion, on the other hand, provides very little guidance except that “something must be done!” Why? “We are not safe!” It’s comparable to the emotional motive of someone who refuses to fly on an airplane, because there have been news reports of crashes in the past with vivid color pictures. By pushing for a short-term final decision on these things, some people hope to manipulate the outcome against the better judgment (reason) of the citizens who are temporarily willing to trade their civil liberty for the empty promise of greater security. Strike while the iron is hot, as it were. Or, force a decision while emotion is still obscuring reason.

Faith, meanwhile, is already secure (for Christians) in the the certainty of God’s Word. Rather than fearing death, faith would have a Christian anticipate death with a kind of calm joy. We still cringe at the outbreaks of evil that take the lives of our fellow human beings, but they are not unexpected. Rather, these outbreaks confirm the basis of our faith: that everyone on Earth is in need of a Savior from the evil we carry within us. We still shudder at the pain we must suffer in our own lives, but in faith, we know it can be endured, and that Something far better awaits us afterward.

Emotion can either serve faith or it can obscure it. If made to serve faith, then the threat of violence or death, or the prospect of losing our most precious loved ones, does not diminish the quiet comfort we have in God’s promise of eternal life. We can feel terrible pain even while our attention is focused upon the certainty of God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and not even the pain can take away the joy that comes with that certainty.

If made to obscure faith, then emotion probably also obscures reason, for reason is not as powerful as faith, but sometimes it still contradicts faith. When faith is obscured by emotion or reason, then we are led to break the First Commandment, in which God commands us to “fear, love and trust” in Him above all things. In other words, to have no other gods — not even ourselves.

Those in sales tell us that when someone decides to make a major purchase, it’s almost always an emotional decision, rather than a rational decision. When political leaders with an agenda to deprive citizens of their civil rights wish to advance their agenda, they do so by appealing to emotion rather than reason. That’s not how things should be. How many bad purchases have been made that way? How much bad legislation has been passed that way? How many free societies have passed into tyranny that way?

For the Christian, faith can help to straighten things out, so that emotion and reason do not interfere with each other. One word for that may be “wisdom.” I think this has been one of the great blessings upon the United States through many parts of its history, especially in the drafting and adoption of the Constitution with its first ten amendments. May the faith of Christians continue to have such a positive influence.

Much more could be said about this trichotomy, but there is no time. If you wish, feel free to add something by way of a comment.