Look Down! Look Down! Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables And How Christians Can Deal with Immigration Reform.
Introduction: In recent months, a controversy has erupted over the new immigration law passed in Arizona. The law has raised suspicion due to the fact that it “greatly expands the powers of the police in dealing with illegal immigration, including for the first time giving them the right to stop anyone on ‘reasonable suspicion’ they may be an illegal immigrant and arrest them if they are not carrying identity papers.” Furthermore, it leads some to believe that “the new bill will lead to racial profiling, with its powers used to harass anyone who looks or sounds Latino.” Therefore, the law brings to the attention the question concerning the foreigner. However, an even greater question emerges as to how Evangelical Christians will respond to this situation. In order to assess the possibilities for Christians, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables may give insight as to how Christians can deal properly with this event. Why Les Misérables? It is an immensely popular story, yet few there are who really understand the socio-political implications behind the novel. Therefore, this paper will argue that Les Misérables offers the perfect space to deconstruct the recent immigration policy in the United States and the ideology behind it. First, we will examine the novel in light of hospitality toward the Other. Second, we will analyze the way the novel depicts the issues of law and justice. Third, we shall discuss the novel and the idea of history and memory. All of these issues are to be examined in the hopes of finding an application to the current crisis.
The Open Door: Les Misérables and hospitality: It has been called “‘the world’s most popular musical’”. It has been read by millions and adapted for film, animated feature and radio drama. Les Misérables is a phenomenon. Even from its first publication in 1862, it has been incredibly popular. Yet despite such achievements, many would be shocked to learn that the story was “banned in France”. Furthermore, Hugo referenced his critics responses stating, “‘The newspapers which support the old world say, “It’s hideous, infamous, odious, execrable, abominable, grotesque, repulsive, shapeless, monstrous, horrendous, etc.””” And that is the key to the whole situation. Les Misérables is a book about worlds. In fact, the novel presents the reader with a pure form of hospitality, which exposes the old system (political, social and legal) of its prejudices. Therefore, let us examine the text to see how this also applies to our current situation. At the beginning of the novel, Jean Valjean is released from the quarries of Toulon for theft. When he enters the town of Digne, he is refused employment and lodgings because of his yellow passport. Without shelter, Valjean decides to spend the night on a public bench. However, an elderly lady explains to Valjean that he can find lodgings at Bishop Myriel’s home. There, he finds sustenance and lodgings without payment. However, knowing his certain future, Valjean again resorts to thievery. Nevertheless, he is caught and is brought back to the bishop’s residence. When Valjean is brought back to the Myriel’s house, the bishop tells him, “‘Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you promised me to us this money to make yourself an honest man…Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from blank thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.’” The system (legal and economic) left Valjean a bitter and vengeful man. Yet, the bishop’s hospitality offers the convict a new path. Thus an investigation into the meaning of hospitality is in order. To begin, we need to define the word hospitality in order to assess what is accomplished by the bishop’s actions. Jacques Derrida offers us a useful definition, when he wrote: [Absolute] hospitality requires that I open up my home and that I give not only to the foreigner …but to the absolute, unknown anonymous other, and that I give place to them, that I let them come, that I let them arrive, and take place in the place I offer them, without asking of them reciprocity (entering into a pact) or even their names.
For Derrida, hospitality is a call. As James K. A. Smith explains, “The call that resounds in this relation, what the Other calls us to, is hospitality – making room for the Other, receiving the Other as wholly Other.” This interpretation of Otherness and hospitality owes a lot to Emmanuel Levinas. As Bruce Ellis Benson remarks, “Levinas sees the desire to systematize as an attempt to control that which is other to me by making it mine. In other words, I wish to recast the other in my own image.” Thus, hospitality is unconditional. As Smith declares, “Derrida suggests that hospitality…requires unconditional welcome and orders ‘that the borders be open to each and every one, to every other, to all who might come, without question or without their having to identify who they are or whence they came.” This is exactly the way the bishop operates. When Hugo recounts the bishop’s manner, he states, “No door in the house could be locked.” The reason for this principle stems in the bishop’s words, “This is the distinction: The doctor’s door must never be shut; the priest’s door must always be open.” Even when Valjean wakes up to steal the bishop’s silver, he finds that that the door “was not barred.” Moreover, as Valjean sneaks into Myriel’s bedroom, he “found the door ajar. The bishop had not closed it.” It is no wonder that the text refers to Myriel as “a man who is hospitable by nature.” This is why the people of Digne “elected to call him by the name which for them had the most meaning, Monsigneur Bienvenu…Bienvenu – or ‘welcome’.” However, this hospitality is not some naïve romanticism. On the contrary, it is most dangerous. When Valjean goes to steal the silverware, he carries a spike that serves as a pry bar. As he stands in the bishop’s room, Valjean approaches the bishop as he sleeps and stands “seemingly between the two extremes of death on the one hand and salvation on the other – ready to shatter that skull or to kiss that hand.” In the Bille August film from 1998, the scene is recreated; however, the bishop awakens and catches Valjean in the act of stealing. Valjean proceeds to render the bishop unconscious with a blow to the face. Therefore, this hospitality is not without its dangers. There is a certain vulnerability involved in it. The person becomes exposed to the Other. John D. Caputo is more bold when he declares, “[Love] means to ‘surrender to the impossible,’ se rendre, to render oneself back to the impossible.” The impossible then represents the Other. As Caputo further delineates, “The other person is not one of our possibilities but one of our impossibilities…We can never be sure of what is going on in the heart of the other but we affirm that distance rather than being demoralized or defeated by it. The relation to the other is bracing but risky business.” In the novel, Valjean asks the bishop why he does not fear that Valjean could murder him in his sleep. The bishop kindly retorts, “‘That’s God’s affair.’” In the 1998 film, the same situation presents itself except the bishop says, “‘How do you know I’m not going to murder you...We’ll just have to trust each other.’” Therefore the story posits an element of trust between the two parties if hospitality is to be carried out. Since both are finite beings (one can not know the mind of the other), a mutuality of trust must be established. As Christ understood it, our love for our neighbor needed to be the same as the love we have for ourselves. After all, is that not the point behind the “Golden Rule”? As Jesus explains, “‘In everything do unto others as you would have them do unto you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12 NRSV ). Thus, Christ states that the heart of the law is the law of hospitality; or that the law is hospitality. Therefore, it is imperative that Christians promote inclusivity as much as possible. This has been the problem with a Christianity in the United States. As Caputo writes: The Christian Right is all for the force of law, for rigorous enforcing laws against illegal immigrants, for keeping order in the streets, and they applaud wooden formulas like ‘three strikes and you’re out while slandering jurists who value discernment and adjudication as merely pandering to criminals.
As most of us are aware, Valjean receives a sentence of five years for stealing bread to save his sister’s family. Because of his numerous escape attempts, Valjean’s time in Toulon reaches nineteen years. Thus, Hugo lays the blame on the system for being so callous and overbearing on the less fortunate. As Hugo exclaims, “Was it not monstrous that society should treat in this fashion precisely those least favored in the distribution of wealth, which is a matter of chance, and therefore those most needing indulgence?” In other words, Valjean becomes a victim of what Slavoj Žižek terms “systemic violence”. Žižek defines it as the “violence inherent in a system: not only physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustains relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence.” What is most disturbing about our present state of affairs for Christians in the United States comes from the fact that many Christians go along with these prejudices. This is why Caputo is so incensed when he declares: It [the Christian Right] turns a deaf ear to the poverty of the inner-city life that makes a life of crime an inviting alternative to working for below-subsistence wages and no health care. They campaign vigorously for right-wing politicians who grant tax breaks to the wealthy but refuse to raise minimum wage – in the name of Jesus!
This attitude does not manifest the law of Christ, which is hospitality. Instead of being like Monsigneur Bienvenu, some Christians in America have become Inspector Javert.