Justifying Ourselves

Today I’ve been listening to the song of Valjean from the musical Les Miserables. I’ve felt incredibly challenged by the lyrics and how easily they challenge self-justification.

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You can listen to it here.

Here are the lyrics:

He thinks that man is me
He knew him at a glance!
That stranger he has found
This man could be my chance!
 
Why should I save his hide?
Why should I right this wrong
When I have come so far
And struggled for so long?
 
If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!
 
I am the master of hundreds of workers.
They all look to me.
Can I abandon them?
How would they live
If I am not free?
 
If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!
 
Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not see his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place
Who am I?
Can I conceal myself forevermore?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Must I lie?
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on
 
[He appears in front of the court]
 
Who am I? Who am I?
I am Jean Valjean!
 
[He unbuttons his shirt to reveal the number tattooed to his chest]
 
And so Javert, you see it’s true
That man bears no more guilt than you!
Who am I?
24601!
Valjean is suddenly presented with this wonderful opportunity to be truly free. A life no longer pursued by Javert. How easy it would be for him to think, ‘oh great. God has seen my hard work and he’s freeing me.’
But the one who knows God, who knows redemption and forgiveness must deeply know that our freedom is never at the expense of another.
Paul and Silas knew this in the dark of a prison cell, beaten and put in stocks – that earthquake that loosen their shackles seemed like a freedom gift from heaven.
But their freedom in this instance would have cost the jailer his life.
We want to think we are more important, the rules don’t really apply to us the way they apply to everyone else, our rights are worth defending at all costs. It is so easy to justify ourselves, to think about what we are doing and why it is so good/right/justified.
Slavery, racism, division, oppression…. these things cannot belong to the person who truly knows that every life is of equal value.
It’s easy for Valjean to justify this circumstance – he is a factory owner, the mayor, people rely on him – he has campaigned to be a light in his community. He is making a difference. This other person is probably poor and has no power or title.
Justice comes at a price.
We can live free but it will cost us – it might cost us financially missing out because we’re not prepared to compromise on things that come at the expense of others or dishonest business practice, it might cost us friendships, it might mean we are marginalised with the marginalised…
Yet in this story we also see the bright light of redemption. Because we have an

This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place
The truth is that we are condemned, we are broken, we have damaged others, we have been complicit in silence or in action and we deserve the sentence.
But Jesus.
The innocent who bears our face – whose full humanity allowed him to go to judgement in our place.
And so we are faced with the great irony
But the one who knows God, who knows redemption and forgiveness must deeply know that our freedom is never at the expense of another.
because
our redemption and forgiveness has come at the expense of another
May we all have courage to confront our own desires to justify the behaviours in us that come at the expense of others. Maybe it’s the way we purchase (ouch), the way we make friends with some people and leave others out (ouch) maybe it’s the protective boundaries we put around ourselves, our families, our communities to keep ourselves in and ‘others’ out (ouch).
As I say, these are things that challenge me deeply. As a dear friend puts it, ‘I am a hypocrite in transition.’
Do we have the courage to not allow our freedoms, our comfort to be at the expense of others?
May we know what it is to have been loved so deeply that an innocent went to judgement in our place, and may we see that value in every other.
May we be brave and may we be agents of justice and freedom.
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