Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Faith Works 1-05

Faith Works 1-05-13

Jeff Gill


A film called "The Downtrodden"


"No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us." (1 John 4:12, NLT)

The climactic line of "Les Miserables" is: "Take my hand, and lead me to salvation. Take my love, for love is everlasting. And remember, the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God."

As a Christian and a pastor, these are stirring lines however sung, and they were when I first heard them on Broadway, and they are beautifully delivered in the new film version of the musical. I cannot encourage people of faith enough, who have not experienced this show in some form already, to please go and see this.

For older youth groups, I'll note that there is one scene not graphic but unmistakable when Fantine is forced into prostitution that might be over some folks' lines, and the Thenardier's have potty mouths, even as they are the grim comic relief of the narrative. But I'd take high schoolers without a second thought . . . only if you can also leave time after the two and half hours to debrief, to discuss what they've seen and heard.

For those who've expressed some confusion with the politics & history context of "Les Miserables," try reframing it this way:

"The Downtrodden" is about a poor man named John Johnson, who was convicted in the 1920s South for theft, and ended up on a chain gang. He finally makes parole, skips out of Mississippi, and after an encounter with the abbot of a monastery in Arkansas, decides to change his life, using a grubstake from the abbot to start a business, and in the course of that becomes a mayor in the Central Valley of California during the 30s. One of the state prison officials from Mississippi, Javerts, works his way up the law enforcement career ladder to a federal job, and is assigned to a fraud investigation post checking migrant labor for the INS. He runs into Mayor Madison, who is actually Johnson.

Johnson's manufacturing business gives work to women most of whom have husbands working in the fields around the town; Fantina Martinez is one of them, who ends up out of a job after turning down the foreman's advances. By the time this sequence is over, Mayor Madison is revealed as Johnson, Javerts makes moves in court to have him extradited back South, and as Fantina dies, Johnson takes in her little girl who was staying at a Motor Court and tavern out in the Mojave with a family named Thernstrom who were taking advantage of Fantina while not caring for her child, named Cosette.

Leaping to the dawn of the 1940s, Johnson and Cosette are now in Los Angeles, under an assumed name once more. They live near Long Beach, where labor activism is stirring up again, based on memories of the IWWs just a few decades earlier. The labor organizers have a pub down by the docks where they hang out with each other and the longshoremen. A college grad named Mark is there, whose family made their wealth in the railroads, but he became aware of the injustices done in his family's name during his studies.

The growing move to a war footing makes the more radical union members realize that if they don't get the whole dockyards organized now, they will be forced into paralysis once war is declared. They decide to use an upcoming Fourth of July parade as the occasion for a public demonstration that will likely draw the assault and even gunfire of the LA County sheriff's deputies, which they hope will cause the workers as a whole to rise up and join them in protest and unification. The parade and demonstration go as planned, but the people in general turn their backs on them, and the protest organizers retreat back into the tavern, barricading themselves in, hoping that the national news will pick up the story, and support from around the nation will rise to their defense . . . but the story does not go further, and the National Guard is called in along with the sheriff's deputies, to surround and demand the surrender of the protesters, who will be charged with murder of a deputy killed in the parade protest.

Javerts has infiltrated the pub, and hopes to lead the entire crew out in surrender by convincing them of the hopelessness of their cause, but is frustrated in this by being revealed as a federal agent by Gavin, a teenager who hung about the docks as an orphan and occasional errand-runner for the union leaders. Gavin had seen Javerts working with customs inspectors earlier out on the docks. But all the while, Mark had seen Cosette, Johnson's ward, at a carnival on the boardwalk the week of the Fourth, and couldn't get her out of his mind.

I think you can fill in the rest, but that's my best historic reframing for those trying to "understand" the context. But don't let French history get in the way of this stunning story of faith and choices and redemption.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; yes, he's a fan of "Les Mis." Tell him what you think about faith and musical theatre, or anything else, at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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