I only came to watch a cheesy sing-a-long with my mate on a Sunday night, but within 10 minutes I was quietly weeping at this story of super-human mercy, manifested through fallible human beings. I’d stumbled upon a grace-fest.
“Look down look down, upon your fellow man.
Look down and show some mercy if you can.”
Prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, has been granted parole after 19 years: five years for stealing bread for his sister’s starving child and 14 years for escape attempts. Valjean gets his papers, which mark him as a convict, meaning he is unable to find work, money or shelter. My heart hurt with its contemporary resonance. Although the probation service does an amazing job and many charities help those leaving prison find work, the prejudice experienced by Valjean is all too familiar.
I work with women in the criminal justice system and have heard story after story of hard attitudes, closed doors where employment or housing is concerned, that could’ve made a difference.
Much rejected, Valjean finally experiences acceptance when he encounters a Christian – a bishop – who feeds him and offers him shelter. Not only this, but when Valjean attempts to steal the bishop’s silverware, the bishop covers for him, telling the police it had been a gift to Valjean. This act of grace changes Valjean’s life. I can’t help wondering what would happen if Christians today weren’t known for judgment but for generosity and free-flowing grace? I daydream of a world where mercy triumphs over judgment, no grudges are held, where mistakes are learnt from and moved on from. Where love covers a multitude of sins.
Fantine’s fall from grace is next. It transpires she has a child who she sent away to live with an inn-keeper, who she sends money to. Fantine then loses her factory job, sells her hair and her teeth, becomes a prostitute who contracts TB. Again, I think of the women I’ve worked with in prison who’ve had their children removed by the state, who work the streets, whose drug addiction has taken its toll on their teeth and who contract all kinds of diseases. And I’m praying, that those children have adoptive families like Valjean and aren’t left languishing in our over-stretched care system.
The film ends with the death of Valjean, who’s met by Fantine’s ghost, singing some pseudo-biblical lyrics such as “come with me, where chains will never bind you” and “to love another person is to see the face of God”.
By this stage in proceedings, I was done in. I wasn’t thinking about the terrible representation of women in it (quite literally virgins, mothers or prostitutes) or the problematic elevating of the love story over the political barricade. I was musing on mercy, great huge waves, giant lung bucketfuls.
Mercy. How it could revive the Church in the UK, marking it out as exceptional, where all are loved and given multiple chances. Where a perfect God uses His imperfect children to carry it to others. And from my fondness for Brecht in my undergrad days, I remember that to cry at a performance is not the same as having changed something. I must not mistake my tears for engagement and action with the issues raised, with mercy.
Quite a lot to think about on a Sunday night.
By Sara Kewly Hyde, theatre maker, thinker, blogger and activist who works with women in the Criminal Justice System. - Evangelical Alliance