Javert’s Suicide

By Doug Samples


From the opening pages of the book and the opening chords of this wonderful musical, the lives of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert are inexplicably linked as protagonist and antagonist, good vs evil.  The irony is that theiir lives are quite parallel in many ways, except that they always seem to be going in different directions.

Javert was born in a prison where his parents were both incarcerated; his mother, a gypsy prostitute and his father, a thief.  In an earlier song, we hear the deep shame that is part of his past: “I was born inside a jail, I was raised with scum like you, I am from the gutter, too.”  His fanatical devotion to law and justice seems to be his obsessive attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of God.

From Javert’s perspective, Jean Valjean is not a person of value; he is nothing more than Convict #24601!  Once a thief, always a thief.  In the Prologue, as Valjean is being released from the Toulon prison, Javert warns him that he will be watching and waiting to re-arrest him.  “I am Javert, do not forget my name, do not forget me, 24601.”

Over the course of his never-ending pursuit of Valjean, Javert gets his hands on Valjean several times with the intent to arrest him and send him back to prison… where criminals like him belong!  But as we come now to the end of the story, after Valjean pardons his life and sets him free, Javert is at a loss as to how to harmonize the cacophony of emotions going on inside of him.

The world that Javert has lived in all his life has been a tightly wound belief system where everything is either black or white, right or wrong.  That has always worked for Javert until now!  After assigning Valjean to the dark side all these years, his gift of mercy and life (and light) to Javert has caused a loose thread of doubt to appear for the first time ever.  “Must I now begin to doubt, who never doubted all these years?”

In this confused state, when Javert stumbles upon Valjean and Marius coming out of the sewer, he somehow agrees to help Valjean take Marius safely home to his family and then say goodbye to Cossette.  Javert, the merciless defender of the Law, is showing mercy for the first time in his life.  His precariously balanced world of law and order is coming apart at the seams.  His stone-cold heart is trembling and about to fall apart.

Javert’s world, that was once so high and mighty, has become lost in the shadow of light radiating from this redeemed convict!  His “Stars” that were once beacons of order and light – “silent and sure” –  have now been shaken out of their alignment and become nothing more than cold, black reminders of a world that no longer exists!

Javert wanders the streets in emotional turmoil: his mind simply cannot reconcile the image he had carried through the years of Valjean as a brutal ex-convict with his acts of kindness on the barricades. For the first time in his life, Javert is faced with a situation where he cannot act lawfully without acting immorally. Unable to find a solution to this dilemma and horrified by the sudden realization that Valjean was simultaneously a criminal and a good person—a conundrum which made a mockery  of Javert’s entire system of moral values—Javert decides that the only way to resolve the dissonance is by removing himself from the equation.  And so, he commits suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Seine River.

Life Application
The Bible tells the story of a strong-willed man by the name of Paul whose life was similar to Javert’s in many ways.  He was a strict Law-Keeper!  He boastfully describes himself in Philippians 3:4-6… “You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.” (The Message)

With Javert-like passion, he went around looking to punish anyone who dared to not keep the Jewish laws that he had vowed to protect.  He could say with Javert, “I am the Law and the Law is not mocked!”  He was not only meticulous in the keeping of the Law himself, but also set himself up as the one who passed judgment on anyone who dared to cross his path.

The sad thing is… I have known people like this in every church where I have pastored!  They live their life by the strict observance of the law with no room for grace.  Like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, they neither live with grace nor give grace to anyone else!

Like Paul and the “older brother,” these people live by the Law and become the self-appointed Law for everyone who has the misfortune to come into their circle of life.  Any attempt to reason with them is met with hardness and harshness.  If you dare to question them, you get the back of their hand, the whip of their tongue, the wag of their finger and ultimately the turn of their heel as they ignore you and write you off their list of friends.

There are at least one of these Law-Keeper folks in every holiness church and they seem to take great joy in playing the game of “Gotcha!”  They are always on the hunt for law breakers and since no one keeps the Law like them, law breakers are never hard to find.  They seem to enjoy pointing out when others are not keeping the Law like they should.  And there is never any intent of using the “Gotcha!” in any kind of constructive or redemptive way.  They’re not wanting to help the person; they are not catching people in their sin in order to bring about redemption.  They just want to expose them and lock them in the prison of Sin where they belong!  Like Javert said to Valjean, they are convinced that “Men like you can never change.”

These Law-keeping, Law-dispensing Javerts can come in all shapes and sizes!  One of the youngest Javerts I’ve ever known was in his 20s and working in the church teen group with his Javert wife.  Perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect lifestyle, perfect jobs, perfect marriage (with no children!), perfect everything!  But after a few years, I realized they had a vendetta out for any teenager who didn’t measure up to their understanding of perfection.  After watching them catch and destroy several teens, exposing them for the “24601’s” that they were, it became obvious that their intent was to play a condemning game of “Gotcha!” rather than help our teens find forgiveness and redemption.   Of course, there is a time and place to call sin Sin, but not when it is for the enjoyment of the Javert who seeks to impose his shame on everyone else.

As a result of this Javert-like legalism, these folks have created an atmosphere in many of our churches where grace is seemingly not allowed.  Instead of sinners receiving grace, they receive nothing but the lash of the law.  In too many churches, these “Gotcha”-playing warriors have ruled the day… all the way back to when our altars were seen as places of dis-grace rather than grace.  When anyone dared to go to the altar at the close of the service, the Javerts in the room would seethe with righteous indignation under their starched collars, “I wonder what’s wrong with him?  I wonder what he did this week?”

Fortunately, we are slowly putting those judgmental, condemning ways behind us.  But the pain and shame is never too far from the surface for many broken people sitting in our pews on Sunday morning.  I recently preached a sermon that was entitled “God’s Ridiculous Generosity.”  Sitting in the congregation was a 50 year old couple who come to church most every Sunday.  They quietly slip in and slip out.  I have counseled with them several times.  He has mental/paranoia problems that cause him to struggle with deep depression.  From the guilt-laced sermons he heard for so many years, he feels that he can never be good enough.  He comes to the altar quite often and was there again after the sermon on God’s generous grace.  After the service he came to me at the front of the church, buried his head in my shoulder and sobbed, “I probably won’t make it to heaven… but I hope I do!”

His desperate, appreciative comment made me think of another person’s comment from a few years ago when I did another sermon on the lavishness of God’s grace.  A tender-hearted gentleman who has been raised all his life with a harsh, judgmental God instead of a gracious, generous God said to me in tears, “I’ve waited 70 years for a message like that about the grace of God!  Thank you!”   It’s comments like that that make me aware of how well-intentioned, legalistic, fundamentalist Javerts have dominated our churches for so long that it seemed like they were the only game in town.  If you were going to be a Christian, you had to sign up to be on their team or face the danger of being labeled as a questionable character!

Many of our good people have given up believing in the lavish grace of God that they read about in the Bible.  For too long, our good people have struggled under the oppressive condemnation of a Javert-like, grace-less  lifestyle.  And it would make matters much, much worse if we were able to count how many people have been driven completely out of the church and away from God by these well-intentioned, but venomous, Law-Keeping Javerts.

I am very much aware that when we preach a radical message of grace, that we will be the target of Javert’s wrath, but if we are going to be true to the Gospel, we have no other choice!  Like the reckless person in the “Parable of the Sower,” it is in the lavish scattering of God’s abundant grace that you and I find our salvation.

There are too many Javerts in too many of our churches still today!  Too many Javerts and not enough Jean Valjeans!  Let’s take this opportunity today to receive and enjoy God’s undeserving but redeeming Grace that God so richly pours out upon us!  Let’s allow that grace to change us!  Let’s choose to be Valjean rather than Javert!

It was not the Law that brought salvation to the Javert-like Paul!  It was being surprised by the transforming grace of God on the Road to Damascus that caused his life to do a Valjean-like 180!  If you and I have been recipients of that grace, let’s find someway to pass on that grace to the people we meet this week.


7 thoughts on “Javert’s Suicide

  1. I’ve been pondering what I might add to this wonderful take on Javert, and I thank you for it. But there is so much response going on in my brain, it’s like inner bumper cars. I grew up in a whole family of Javerts. Even though I fled on foot, I never lost my respect for the legalistic outlook and how it successfully frames many lives, including my mother’s. For her, an inflexible faith was her rock, for me, at least initially, it was exciting. As a small child in Catholic school in the 1950’s, I learned that it was okay to jump out the window of a tall building in order to avoid a rape, because there COULD be a canvass awning down there, or a passing hay wagon, however unlikely, and you could avoid the rape without yourself dying, so your”escape” would not constitute suicide. On the other hand, you could not throw yourself on a hand grenade to protect companions in battle, because whereas it might be a “dud” and not go off, you would not accomplish your purpose, saving lives, unless it did and you yourself died, so the leap from the building was moral and the leap onto the grenade was immoral because the latter constituted suicide. Strange as it may sound to be filling a ten year old’s head with such inflexible “wisdom,” I loved it. It was not only safe, it was permanent. Truth could be ascertained, it was exciting. It’s why, as a child, I decided to be a lawyer when I grew up so I could spend my whole life pondering the meaning of words into laws. Of course one day in my mid twenties, without any growing doubt or struggles of faith, I heard a priest say something in church with which I disagreed. I said to myself, “If I went up there and told him what I think, he would say, ‘You’re wrong.’ And I’m not wrong.” I waited to the end of Mass, quietly left, and never returned. This is an odd way to leave Catholicism, but I had been taught and always believed that the Church could make no mistakes. In the past, if I disagreed with the Church, I believed that I was wrong and needed to pray for more faith. This time, this one Sunday morning, I was right and I knew it. THE CHURCH COULD NOT BE WRONG. And it was wrong. I could almost hear and see that house of cards gently fall to the ground and lie there flattened. I had been a true believer my whole life, and then I wasn’t. Just like that. I didn’t jump off a bridge, though. Instead, I became a Unitarian Universalist minister, joining a denomination that first ordained a woman in 1869, leaving behind one that still doesn’t. But I never stopped understanding and appreciating the life sustaining power of a black and white universe as experienced by my extended family. This is why Javert has always been my favorite Les Mis character, although I rarely admit it. He makes sense to me. I get it. B follows A, as C unfailingly follows B, is a mindset that worked for my mother. I watched her walk beside the casket of her husband of 40 years, then six months later, that of her only son, dead at 29, all five foot one inch of her, standing tall, her faith sustaining her.with its inflexibility. So each time I see the play, I feel a huge amount of respect and affection for Javert, whom I could never see as evil. At the same time, I know that Javert wouldn’t give a rip about my respect or affection, if he could even become aware of its existence. The Javerts have to be prevented from bringing harm to others, I understand and accept that. But the Javerts need love too. It breaks my heart that they cannot receive it.
    Rev. Angeline Theisen, 27-year Unitarian Universalist Minister, Retired.

  2. Hello Doug –

    I’m a bit late joining in the conversation! Thanks to your weblog, though, it’s all here a couple months later, and I’m grateful. Please keep it here for others.

    My wife and I saw the latest movie with Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and others. I can’t remember a time when I’ve sat through a movie with such rapt attention. By nature, I’m one who fidgets, but not that night.

    Looking at Javert is like looking in the mirror of my younger self. I won’t go into needless details, but by the grace of God, I’m trending toward Jean Valjean these days. Still, the “Are you John Valjean or Javert?” is too simple a question. Strangely enough, I’m something of a mixture. I find, however, than when I have a “Javert moment,” it can freeze relationships.

    On the other hand, it may be too simple to say that pre-Road to Damascus Paul was Javert and afterwards he was Jean Valjean. He never lost the Pharisee streak in his thinking, and quite frankly, I’m glad he didn’t. For all the attempts to say they contradict each other, Paul and James have more in common than the first glance would suggest. James speaks of the “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25). May I suggest that there are many in our churches coming out of the “anything goes” life of sin that really need some Javerts? They need the boundaries, the discipline – and that is a big word in spiritual formation, is it not? – that is an important thread in the Christian faith. Wise is the pastor who can channel such individuals in the direction of a Javert, someone who can provide the other “wing” on the airplane without which grace easily becomes license.

    Lots to think about here! “Law” and “grace” are both necessary. Let us not condone a lawless grace, nor a graceless law. There is a via media that puts the two together.

    Thanks again, Doug, Nate, and John for this excellent blog. I read most of the sermons yesterday, and came away inspired. Good job!

    – Greg

    • Greg,
      Thanks for your post. I’m glad you enjoyed the movie and found our blogs. John and I both preached a series of sermons last Fall based on our work here and Nate is planning to do a series this Spring. It was lots of work but truly a labor of love!

      I greatly appreciate your call for balance in the matters of law and grace. In my years at SNU, I have discovered that my favorite word in teaching anything is the concept of maintaining balance! So, your call for balance always a good thing.

      I guess I have just seen so many graceless Javert’s run roughshod through so many churches with their tyranny of “Gotcha!” every time they catch someone stepping outside their self-proclaimed boundaries of black and white… that I’m ready to ere on the side of Grace and Peace for a few decades in hopes of bringing balance to our precious tribe!

  3. I am a Catholic, fully orthodox, and I don’t identify the Catholic faith with Javert AT ALL (except those Catholics tinged with what is known in the Catholic Church as JANSENISM, which is an inflexible and highly-legalist Self Righteousness). No, the message of the Catholic Gospel is that of the Bishop of Digne and his stunned disciple Jean Valjean. Both Valjean and Javert use a crucifix in their devotions, but Valjean sees the crucifix as what it is: a depiction of God’s lavish mercy. Javert, by contrast, looks at that crucifix and sees in it what he THINKS God wants him to do, without mercy, to everybody who makes a mistake: CRUCIFY THEM! Javert is wrong, and Valjean is right, and that is the message, a big part of it, of Les Miserables and of the Catholic faith. Yes, there are hyper-legalists in the RCC, but their views are not the official views. — By the way, I am a convert to the Cathoic Faith from 30 years brainwashing by the Jehovah’s Witness cult, which was followed by a brief Calvinist stint in the Presbyterian Church (wherein I was first baptized a trinitarian Christian!) 🙂

  4. Pingback: On Law and Grace: Thoughts on Javert and Jean-Valjean | Theology in Overalls

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