If you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now. I don’t want to spoil it for you! The story centres around, Jean Valjean, who at the beginning of the film is knee deep in sea water, chained to a line of fellow prisoners, pulling a ship into harbour under the watchful eye of his gaoler, Javert, played by Russell Crowe. It is clear that the 19 years of incarceration have taken their toll. He is well acquainted with suffering and embittered by justice that sought to degrade and dehumanise as punishment for stealing bread to feed a sick child. The terms of his release make work impossible so once freed he quickly becomes destitute. He takes shelter in the doorway of a church and unexpectedly the priest welcomes him in. Treating him as an honoured guest, he is given a lavish banquet and provided with a room in which there is a wardrobe full of silver artefacts. The temptation is too great. Jean fills his sack with the loot and flees. The police find him, drag him back to the scene of the crime but the priest says he has gifted him the treasure and offers the silver candlesticks as well! With no reason to re-imprison him, Jean is freed. This demonstration of forgiveness and unconditional love causes him to let go of hate and adopt a new identity so he can show compassion and justice to others.
Jean stays true to his vow, becomes a fair employer and mayor of the town. But Javert, now police chief, becomes suspicious as to his real identity. An inquiry into the allegation distracts Jean and leads to a woman in his employ being unjustly dismissed. She is ill-used and forced into prostitution to provide for her daughter. Jean finds her but it is too late. On her deathbed he promises to care for the child as his own. Although on the run from Javert and in constant fear of being exposed, Jean rescues the little girl, Cosette, and becomes her father. The adult Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionary, Marius, and Jean saves him from certain death at the ruthless suppression of an uprising. During the skirmish Jean comes face to face with his nemesis, Javert, and has the opportunity to kill him and end the years of running. However, Jean shows him the forgiveness and unconditional love that he received and lets him go. Javert cannot stand this. He has always believed that sin must be punished and by upholding the rule of law he was doing God’s will. Confronted with grace, his beliefs are shattered and he can no longer live. Meanwhile, Marius recovers and marries Cosette. Jean cannot bear them knowing the truth of his identity and dying, seeks sanctuary in the convent. Marius discovers that it was he who rescued him from the massacre at the barricade. They find Jean and declare their love and gratitude for the man he really is. He dies at peace with himself, with God and those whom he loves.
So what does all that have to do with shame? In the excellent book ‘Atonement for a ‘sinless’ Society’, the author Alan Mann describes shame as the gap between our real selves and the self we construct to present to the world. In the same way Jean had to hide who he really was and create a socially acceptable identity in order to exist in safety, many of us live in fear of having our real selves exposed to scrutiny. We struggle less with guilt at having done something wrong than the shame of feeling we are unworthy of love and the fear that if we are known in reality we will be rejected and spurned.
Christianity has so often been understood in terms espoused by Javert, that the law should not be transgressed and wrong-doing must be punished. It is only Christ’s death that satisfies the need for punishment so we can be free. Yet, I believe, faith in Jesus addresses our shame as completely as our guilt. “Shame does not respond to punishment; rather, it is love that banishes shame,” says the missionary Norman Kraus in ‘Recovering the Scandal of the Cross’ by Green and Baker. Like the priest in this story, God does not disclose our offences but offers forgiveness and the hope of a fresh start. There is no need to hide who we really are because the divine sees and loves the beauty of our uniqueness. In the same way that Jean is reconciled and his true personhood is brought together with the construct by love, so Christ’s willingness to die a shameful death for our sake demonstrates both His love and the potential for harmony between the ideal He preached and the embodied reality. It is by experiencing grace in the midst of shame that we can find reconciliation within ourselves, restoring identity, discovering purpose and recovering the potential for meaningful relationships.