Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Who am I?

This post contains spoilers for Les Miserables. Read at your own risk!

It's really hard to see who people are sometimes. I unexpectedly made friends with one of the shuttle drivers that goes between the two campuses of my hospital. He is usually featuring some sort of classical music selection and I have an interest in music so I like to ask him what we're listening to. After a couple times, he started asking me about me. I'm a complete amateur but I know enough about music to be able to have some conversations about some of the technical aspects or history. This driver is usually the one who takes me back across the river to my parking garage at the end of the day, so we have been having these conversations for several months now, and I've pieced together bits and clips of his story. It turns out he has a Ph.D. in musicology and did some teaching, but because of the economy and the general climate of jobs in academia he's working this job and another unrelated one, both outside his field. At first, I was just making small talk because I was curious, but now I always ask him what we're listening to and what he's seen or purchased recently because I imagine that the history teacher in him is just dying to come out. If you just looked at him from the outside, you might think he was a bus driver with a passing interest in music. Instead, I have had the privilege of really hearing his story and witnessing the beauty of his passion and how he brings who he is to his unexpected career path.

On that note, I've been listening obsessively to the 10th Anniversary Dream Cast version of Les Miserables. I saw the recent movie and loved it with all my soul, and listening to it over and over (and over and over...) has been even more fulfilling, because I am starting to recognize which musical themes belong to which part of the story and notice the parallels intentionally drawn there. One of the things that I caught on this listen is the three or four repetitions of the question: "Who am I?" For a quick recap, the premise of Les Mis is kind of how it sounds: it's the story of the French Revolution and all the miseries that various people are facing in an incredibly unjust pre-revolution France. It follows a man, Jean Valjean, who stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving child and was sentenced to hard labor--literally to slavery--for almost 20 years. Upon his release, he finds the lawful Javert watching over him, waiting for him to slip up, which he does. Angry at his long imprisonment, Valjean spites the kindly bishop who gave him food by stealing the silver from the church. However, when he's caught, the bishop lies to Javert and gives Valjean even more of the church's valuables. Having received grace where condemnation was due, Valjean has a crisis and ultimately decides to dedicate his life to good.

Fast forward about five years, and Valjean has built a business which employs many poor people. However, a young woman there named Fantine gets into a conflict with another employee and unknowingly Valjean ends up allowing the man to unjustly dismiss her. With a child to support and her husband having left her, Fantine turns to prostitution to feed her daughter Cosette. Sadly, Fantine dies due to disease from her prostitution, but not before Valjean runs into her by chance and learns her story. He swears to right the wrong he committed by finding her daughter (who is being cared for by some greedy inkeepers) and raise her. The rest of the story is the drama unfolding from that. Valjean finds Cosette and they must hide to escape both of their pasts. Meanwhile, Cosette grows up and one day happens upon a young nobleman named Marius who is involved in the brewing Revolution. The French Revolution serves to highlight the bottom line of this story, which is that the world is not a just place for many people.

Through all of this, Javert, the lawman, continues to chase after Jean Valjean, and it's too complicated to explain it all, but the chief question that continually arises is 'who am I?' Valjean, who had been identified again and again by his prisoner number, asks it when he first receives pardon. Fantine asks it, the Revolutionaries are asking it, the young woman Eponine who loves Marius despite his love for Cosette asks it, and even Javert asks it in his final moments of spiritual agony. When I first saw the movie, I thought that the question was simpler, about behaving with mercy or "justice." But listening to it, I realized that the question is really who are we? We are a people living in the midst of agony, but are we a people of hope or of despair? Are we a people of love or hate? Are we a people of mercy or condemnation?

We spend a lot of our lives asking who we are, and defining ourselves both by our roles and by our works, and we do the same to others. Is it a lazy person or a person dealing with unimaginable financial burdens? Is it a bum, or a veteran? We define one another by our jobs and clothes and how well we adhere to a standard of success that is always moving a little further away. We look at the bus driver and see... a bus driver. Maybe we don't think much of his intelligence. Maybe we think he failed along the way. Maybe we don't think much about him at all because he's a servant, a prop taking me from point A to B. Maybe we are all so terrified of being judged by other people that we never actually reveal who we are to one another. Maybe we're afraid of who we really are.

Are we defined by the law--by eye for an eye? If you work hard, you will get this. If you do this, then this will happen. Or maybe, in the same way I got caught up in the details of these two opposing ideas of mercy and justice, we are just missing the big picture. What if the reality is that mercy and justice are not opposed to one another, because true justice is to know and be fully known. To hear the story, to see the 'who am I?' not defined by the label of a slave who fails to uphold the law, but by the question of 'who loves me?'

Luther wrote an amazing treatise called "Freedom of a Christian" which discusses the very backward and counter-intuitive understanding that to die to our old selves is to gain freedom. Jean Valjean was a prisoner, and all of the Revolutionaries recognized their prison within an evil system, and searched for freedom in different ways. But at the last, they all realized that they had to give up themselves to find themselves. This came in the form of loving others so intensely as to lay down their lives. Jean Valjean laid it down to save his nephew, and again to prevent an innocent man going to prison, Fantine laid it down for her daughter, and Eponine laid it down for Marius, Marius and the Revolutionaries laid their lives down for all of France's poor. And in the end they all finally learned that, to quote Fantine, "To love another person is to see the face of God."

The mercy/justice idea is a false dichotomy. Real justice comes through understanding the 'who.' It comes from seeing one another "face to face" as the apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians. It comes from loving another so much that you are transformed. And justice finally comes not from blindly following the rules, but from truly seeing the face of God in our brothers and sisters. Who we are, then, is a people who together wait for freedom from the agony of our bondage in evil systems, in pain, in despair, in grief, knowing that we are glimpsing paradise within our suffering. Who we are is beloved people recognizing the belovedness of other, and enacting justice by transforming the world one face, one life at a time. We go through so much of our lives seeing only dim reflections of ourselves in others, but what if we instead look for God? My challenge to you is to see. Go into your world, and see your bus drivers as people with hopes and dreams and struggles and pain. See your bag boys, your waitresses, your garbage men, your doctor or nurse, your husband or wife as a person full of as much love and fear and personhood as you, and so glimpse paradise through loving them all until tomorrow bursts forth to redeem all our misery.