One day he heard a criminal case, which was in preparation and on the point of trial, discussed in a drawing-room. A wretched man, being at the end of his resources, had coined counterfeit money, out of love for a woman, and for the child which he had had by her. Counterfeiting was still punishable with death at that epoch. The woman had been arrested in the act of passing the first false piece made by the man. She was held, but there were no proofs except against her. She alone could accuse her lover, and destroy him by her confession. She denied; they insisted. She persisted in her denial. Thereupon an idea occurred to the attorney for the crown. He invented an infidelity on the part of the lover, and succeeded, by means of fragments of letters cunningly presented, in persuading the unfortunate woman that she had a rival, and that the man was deceiving her. Thereupon, exasperated by jealousy, she denounced her lover, confessed all, proved all.
The man was ruined. He was shortly to be tried at Aix with his accomplice. They were relating the matter, and each one was expressing enthusiasm over the cleverness of the magistrate. By bringing jealousy into play, he had caused the truth to burst forth in wrath, he had educed the justice of revenge. The Bishop listened to all this in silence. When they had finished, he inquired,--
"Where are this man and woman to be tried?"
"At the Court of Assizes."
He went on, "And where will the advocate of the crown be tried?"---From Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
The Bishop of Digne plays a small role in the movie Les Miserables. It’s a significant role, but he’s still not much of a character. Basically, and almost literally, he is a deus ex machina. He sings of seeing the face of God in another person you love---that love, by the way, must be understood as the love in Love one another as I have loved you and Love your neighbor as yourself---but his face is the face of God beaming with forgiveness and understanding upon Jean Valjean, and that’s about all we need to know about him. He saves Valjean from himself and after two relatively short scenes his work in the movie is done.
(Trivia note: The bishop is played by Colm Wilkinson who starred as Jean Valjean in the original Broadway production of Les Miserables.)
But in the novel Victor Hugo devotes the first fourteen chapters, all of Book One, seventy pages in my edition to introducing us to the bishop and letting us get to know him and how he lives before he brings Jean Valjean onto the scene.
The point of this is to establish Les Miserables as a religious novel as much as or even more than a political one. In fact, in can be read as a decidedly Christian allegory, with the bishop as the exemplar of the Christ-like life Jean Valjean lives out.
The bishop’s a prince of the church but he doesn’t live like a prince. He lives modestly with his sister as his housekeeper. He gives away almost all the money that comes his way. He wears his cassocks until they are too threadbare to mend anymore. He doesn’t keep a carriage. He travels the rugged roads of his rural diocese, visiting the poor and the sick and the afflicted, hitting up the rich for money to help the poor, the sick, and the afflicted, by hired cart, on foot, and, occasionally, riding a donkey---then he laughs at himself for the presumptuous symbolism of that. At one point he asks a rich old miser to given him something for the poor and the miser brushes him off by saying, “I have enough poor people of my own to take care of.” To which the bishop replies, “Then give them to me.”
His is very much a Do unto others and a Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters and, especially, a Seventy times seven Christianity---
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Which of course sets him up in direct opposition to everything Javert stands for and it’s Javert’s inability to accept this relentless forgiveness from Valjean that unravels him and brings about his end.
The bishop stands in opposition to Javert, but he’s also an argument against the revolutionaries or, at any rate, against their great and noble ideas and their ambitions of remaking the world through political action and violence.
When Valjean climbs the barricades it’s not because he’s heard the People sing. He’s there to rescue Marius from the People, from Enjorlas’ great thoughts and grand ambitions, and bring him home. He’s living out the bishop’s teachings.
I shouldn’t call him an argument against but an argument with.
Hugo was a revolutionary at heart (and in deed) but he has the bishop there to make the case that, perhaps, more real good can be done by each of us using whatever little power and means we have to take care of those immediately around us.
Conservatives who might think Hugo’s presciently criticizing the welfare state and liberal democratic government need to keep in mind two things.
The rich have the means and the power and the influence to take care of a great many people. And liberal Democratic government gives the people the means and the power to help each other out on a large scale and that’s why the rich hate it!
The two sides of the Republican Party these days represent those people who think everybody else is a thief and those who think the only good the rich need to do is “create wealth,” and along with the other more charitable ideals the bishop exemplifies, he’s definitely of the Do not store up treasures on earth sort of Christian.
But re-reading the opening chapters of the book didn’t put me in mind of contemporary Republicans as much as it did contemporary conservative Christians---granted, there’s not always a difference. And it was this passage that struck the chord:
In the course of these trips he was kind and indulgent, and talked rather than preached. He never went far in search of his arguments and his examples. He quoted to the inhabitants of one district the example of a neighboring district. In the cantons where they were harsh to the poor, he said: "Look at the people of Briancon! They have conferred on the poor, on widows and orphans, the right to have their meadows mown three days in advance of every one else. They rebuild their houses for them gratuitously when they are ruined. Therefore it is a country which is blessed by God. For a whole century, there has not been a single murderer among them."
What a concept! A God who rewards people for their virtue instead of punishing them for their vices. I don’t believe God works either way, and the bishop might be making a very practical and entirely secular point---if your town isn’t full of desperate, starving people they won’t be committing desperate acts. But it’s worth considering that God might actually be benign or at least not a completely vindictive demon.
Conservative Christian leaders are quick to tell us that every hurricane, terrorist attack, and school shooting is an angry God’s will. He’s punishing us for abortion, feminism, secularism, “the homosexual agenda,” etc. But he never punishes us for our greed and our lack of charity. We’re punished for allowing gay couples to get married but not for letting children go hungry and old people freeze or swelter to death or sick people to go without medicine or a doctor’s care.
God is always punishing us for not being mean enough to each other and ourselves and never for not doing a good enough job of loving one another.