Music Genres, Musicals, Theology Through Music

“Who Am I?”: Harmonizing Grace and Justice in Les Miserables

Yankee Gospel Girl discusses the combination of grace and justice as found in Jean Valijean’s song “Who Am I?” from “Les Miserables”.

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Like most of you, I recently watched and enjoyed the movie “adaptation of an adaptation” of Les Miserables. Translating the musical to the big screen was largely a success, and the decision to sing live was a brave move that bore some excellent fruit. You can read more of my thoughts on the film and the music here.

In this post, I wanted to focus on a particular number sung by Jean Valjean: the song “Who Am I?” Javert has just apologized for accusing “the mayor” of being a former convict, saying that the real Jean Valjean has been caught. After Valjean pardons Javert and sends him back to his post, he must fight an inner battle as he considers the fact that an innocent man is preparing to stand trial for a crime he didn’t commit. What choice will he make? Or is there even a choice about the matter? Here is a portion of that soliloquy, as powerfully presented in the new film by Hugh Jackman:

One day, a particular pair of lines jumped out at me as I was walking and thinking about this song. They had jumped out at me before, but only because they were poetically memorable: “This innocent who bears my face/Who goes to judgement in my place…” Suddenly, a little light bulb came on in my head. I saw what the writers were doing. And I realized that even though Valjean is typically the character emblematic of Christ-like sacrifice, he himself is actually flipping the symbolism around with this lyric. It seems that as he considers the man about to stand trial, he is also remembering another Innocent who went to judgement in his place.

Indeed, how many songs have been written to the effect that that cross should have been ours, that we were the guilty and He was the sacrifice? Except Valjean will not hear of it here. He insists on taking the blame that is rightfully his. In fact, and this is important, he is insisting that justice be served. People more often associate Valjean with mercy and Javert with justice. Yet here, Valjean takes up justice’s cause.

It’s not limited to this part of the story either. Consider the scene where Fantine is assaulted by a soldier and lashes out to tear open his cheek. By the time Javert arrives on the scene, the soldier has his account of how things went down ready to go. “This prostitute attacked me!” Javert believes the word of the soldier. But Valjean saw the entire incident as it played out in front of him. He knows Fantine was not in the wrong. Hence, Javert is (unwittingly) making an unjust decision to accuse Fantine.

The word “justice” itself is spoken by Valjean in “The Confrontation,” where Javert comes to arrest Valjean, and Valjean begs for time to make sure Cosette is provided for. “Let justice be done!” cries Valjean. Of course, Javert thinks this is very ironic. But we’re meant to believe Valjean is once again on the side of justice.

Let’s return to the case of the innocent man facing judgement in Valjean’s place. Why is the man’s sentence an injustice? It is an injustice, because the man is no more than an innocent man. But when we make the analogy to Jesus, we remember that Jesus was more. Jesus was man and God. Consequently, divine justice was still fulfilled by his stripes. Because God is at once perfectly merciful… and perfectly just.

We ask, how can God be merciful and just all at once? Yet the more we ponder the question, the more we see that the real question to ask is how can He not be? And more fully than ever, we feel the absolute necessity that Jesus be one with God Himself in order for His death to have any efficacy whatsoever.

Valjean has already accepted Christ’s sacrifice in exchange for his soul. He “made that bargain long ago.” Now, by rescuing this innocent man from a false accusation, and by caring for the weak and helpless, he is keeping his side of that bargain—to do justly and love mercy. There is a reason why the scriptures place these two injunctions side-by-side. They are inseparable. Both desires exist in the person of God. Both should exist within the human soul.

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4 thoughts on ““Who Am I?”: Harmonizing Grace and Justice in Les Miserables

  1. YGG, I really enjoyed this blog post. I’m a huge advocate of the film, and it was great to read your connections between the biblical virtues of mercy and justice and Jean Valjean’s actions. The song “Who Am I” is complex when we recognize the elements of mercy AND justice being administered at the same time, isn’t it? That’s really cool. Anyway, I just wanted to encourage you in saying that I enjoyed what you had to say. 🙂 Also, you’re a faithful commenter on the Rabbit Room too, aren’t you? What a small world!

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  2. Hi Bailey! Thanks for the comment and the encouragement. I really appreciate it when I get enthusiastic feedback like that.

    I do leave comments from time to time in the Rabbit Room. Small world indeed. If you’d like to share this post in the Les Mis OMR thread, you’re welcome to do so. It might look a little better than me doing it. 🙂

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  3. The Rabbit Room is an online creative community run by writer/musician Andrew Peterson. I became aware of it and was able to interview Andrew for Jessup’s journal. It’s a great place to have conversations on books, music, poetry, etc. They also have podcasts of their blog posts now. http://www.rabbitroom.com/

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