Impossible Justice

Posted by Karen Soole Karen Soole
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I resigned myself a long time ago to the reality that when it came to my children I was a failure in my role as a policeman and judge. It is impossible to fulfil my children’s demands for justice and ever exercise mercy towards their siblings without a cry of “it’s not fair”. I never seem to manage the tension between these two things - the need for punishment and the desire to forgive. Mostly I veer towards the spirit of the age preferring mercy to punishment.

It is this preference for mercy that makes audiences unsympathetic to Russell Crowe’s latest incarnation of the policeman Javert in the film version of Les Miserables. Crowe himself initially turned down the part claiming:

“I didn't like the character in the stage show, I didn't respond to it at all. I just thought it was overly simplistic and I couldn't follow why he came to the conclusions he came to, you know?"

He is not alone. Javert is a very 19th century man, with black and white thinking, clear boundaries of right and wrong, justice and the law. His rigid perspective is not one that many in the 21st century share. The musical adaptation does not help us much either, the reason it gives for Javert’s (plot spoiler here!) suicide is as follows:

                                             Damned if I'll live in the debt of a thief!

                                             Damned if I'll yield at the end of the chase.

                                             I am the Law and the Law is not mocked

                                             I'll spit his pity right back in his face

Crowe is right; this is overly simplistic. In the novel Hugo gives an alternative reason for Javert’s crisis. It is not the mercy of Valjean that destroys him but his own. After Valjean spares his life Javert confronts Valjean in the act of rescuing Marius. Valjean agrees to hand himself over to the law but asks Javert to help him take Marius home (a similar scenario to that at the beginning of the novel with Fantine). In a reversal of previous behaviour Javert agrees. After securing Marius, Javert allows Valjean further delay to settle affairs at home but when Valjean returns to give himself over to the policeman he discovers Javert has left. Javert has let Valjean go! This is Javert’s crisis:

‘Against all regulations, all social and legal organization, against the whole code he, Javert, had taken it upon himself to let a prisoner go. He had substituted private considerations for those of the community: was it not inexcusable?’

For Javert to be merciful he had to break the law. He became a lawbreaker and could not live with it:

‘Javert’s ideal was to be more than human; to be above reproach. And he had failed’.


I have huge sympathy for Javert. He is right: the law matters, without it there is anarchy. Javert is left thinking that ‘anarchy descends from heaven’ because if he shows mercy he breaks the law, yet he can begin to see that mercy is also a good thing. Justice and mercy together are impossible. How can these things be reconciled?

Javert’s dilemma can seem distant from us but this week I was deeply moved by the plight of Ralph Bulger. It is twenty years since his precious child was taken and murdered by two schoolboys. He is still wracked by grief, he feels let down by the law. The act that was done by those boys was evil. He wants that evil punished. If adults had committed the crime they would never have been released from jail but these murderers were children. This case left society grappling with big questions, mercy or punishment, retribution or rehabilitation? For the Bulger family the mercy that has been shown has made justice is impossible.

Over the last few months we have been reading 2 Samuel with the boys. It is a heart-breaking book, all the hope and promise of David’s kingship wrecked by the horror of sin. After his adultery with Bathsheba David seems incapable of doing the right thing. At every point he messes up, failing his daughter Tamar, ignoring the sin of his son Amnon, not knowing if he should show mercy or punish Absalom and finally failing to support his own army after they have won a battle to save his kingship. Even David cannot exercise righteous judgement, when he choses mercy he fails to show justice. Justice and mercy seem impossible.

I find myself crying out to God for his merciful and just king. Thanks be to God heaven’s justice reconciles one of the greatest mysteries. How can God forgive sin and yet not leave the guilty unpunished? As people we can never reconcile the two, we can never keep the balance: we veer towards punishment or mercy. But in the cross wrath and mercy meet: our sin is punished, we can receive forgiveness, and the law’s requirement for justice is met. Is this just? No, it is grace, wonderful undeserved grace pouring out from the heart of God but grace given justly. This is impossible justice and the ultimate reconciliation. It is only found in God. We will fail to model it as parents but we can point our children to the One who is truly the righteous and merciful judge.