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Fr. Glenn: Ah, Javert…

on April 14, 2019 - 6:21am

By Fr. Glenn Jones:

A favorite movie of the 1990s was that version of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” starring Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman, with Geoffrey Rush as the very severe police inspector Javert. One of the unforgettable lines in the movie (perhaps in the book as well?) was as the repentant Javert realizes his hard, unforgiving and severe creed of unbending observance of law, admitting to Jean Valjean—his charitable and virtuous antithesis: “I’ve tried to live my life without breaking a single rule” just before he commits suicide after releasing Valjean so that his harsh and warped sense of justice might be perversely fulfilled.

An interesting contrast in the novel/movie is what brings about repentance, reform and conversion … and what does not. Valjean, a paroled but desperate petty thief only hardened by years of the strict discipline of prison and hard labor, is taken in and treated kindly by a bishop, and yet betrays his benefactor by attack and thievery … only to be forgiven by the bishop when he is arrested by the gendarmes. That one act of forgiveness—that single abeyance of rule and law for a greater good—was that linchpin of mercy and conversion of life, accomplishing in a moment what a decade in prison failed utterly to accomplish.

Yet, in hiding the stigma of his conviction, Valjean breaks parole ... thereafter to be a fugitive whose path would cross that of the merciless and relentless Javert.

Rules. Like so many things, meant for good and yet so abused—whether through disregard or, conversely, through draconian observance—ignoring the reason and spirit of the law in preference of absolute and  unwavering literal observance. 

Certainly laws and rules are necessary for many reasons—for safety, for good order, for uniformity where uniformity is beneficial … for the common good. Yet, one must always be interpretive when necessary, for it is impossible that there be just rules for every permutation of circumstance. If you’ve ever taken a class in ethics or even simply debated morality over coffee, the inevitable “what if” questions arise, positing circumstances in contradiction with the letter of the law.

Many find great comfort and pride in strict adherence to even the most minute rules … in “Javert-ness”. For example, one of the more obscure and minute—and disregarded—rules of the Catholic liturgy is that, while ministers are standing in the sanctuary during Mass, hands should be folded in prayer with “the right thumb over the left”. Apparently a holdover from earlier times, that rule has somehow survived. However, one cannot but doubt that the Lord cares a whit which thumb goes over the other. Even so, after celebrating a Mass, a person once criticized me for my disregard of that rule.

Much more weighty cases of the need to “break the rules” arise due to necessity. A lock must be broken to escape a fire. Speeding may be necessary to save a life. In a memorable (and humorous) cinematic example, Peter Sellers as Group Captain Mandrake in the movie “Dr. Strangelove”, seeks some change to place a call on a pay phone (you’ll have to explain the concept to the younger generations) in order to save the world from nuclear destruction. Yet Col. Bat Guano (yes, really)—even with carnage and destruction all around—hesitates to shoot open a soda machine to acquire the coins because it’s “private property”.

Of course, we Christians in reading the Gospels know that Jesus was quite the “rule breaker”, succoring need and necessity over the strict observance of rules—healing the sick on the Sabbath, allowing the apostles to “harvest” on the Sabbath to assuage their hunger (Mark 2), asking a drink from the Samaritan woman (John 4), touching the “unclean” leper in compassion in contravention of Law (Matthew 8:3), dining with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9), having mercy on the adulteress (John 8), etc. ... Himself citing Old Testament examples of “breaking rules” in cases of necessity—priests breaking the Sabbath to circumcise (John 7:22), David feeding his men with the priests’ bread (Matthew 12:3), etc.—indicating God the Father’s own preference for alleviating need and performing work of charity.

Admittedly—as mentioned in the example above—over-meticulous attention to the letter of the law can be present in religious observance. For instance, young priests and ministers—admittedly in ardor to do what is right and “required” to prove themselves—will often demand strict observance of minutiae of law and regulation while overlooking the greater concerns of charity, reminding one of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith…” (Mathew 23:23) One monastic leader of the past encouraged his monks to not neglect to answer the call of the door’s bell even during prayer, because charity itself was prayer and the work of God.

It’s so easy to become Javert, as such an attitude cultivates pride and self-righteousness. While recognizing that laws, rules, regulations and the like are generally for the benefit of all, we must judge with clear vision, taking into account the call of real charity … but not false charity or self-interest. As Jesus exhorts: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment (John 7:24) … always guided by those cardinal (“hinge”) virtues of temperance, fortitude, justice and prudence. 

It is not blind unthinking adherence to rule that is meritorious, but rather the rule of charity must prevail ... because, as St. Paul so famously writes, echoing his Lord: “…faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)

Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.