Faith Works 12-28-13
Beyond the Barricades
Weathervane Playhouse is wrapping up this weekend a winter run of the spectacular production "Les Misérables", an effort that reminds you of why the movie version was compelling and unique and yet something completely other than a live performance.
Don't get me wrong, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway et alia did a fine job, and Tom Hooper's "in your face" camera work gave us a new approach to this familiar musical that was compelling for newbie and "Les Mis" veterans alike, but when you see a live production on stage, you realize just what a confident risk it is to come out on stage in front of an audience and try to sing, act, and move through a performance without "do-overs."
If you don't already have your tickets, tonight and tomorrow are probably sold out, or should be (you really should check, just in case), but the show made me think again about those revolutions in Europe of the early 1800s that became the seedbed of Victor Hugo's original doorstop of a novel from which the musical drew its plot, if not all the preceding detail.
"Les Misérables" in the French novel original starts with the end of Napoleon, and concludes with a revolution swirling around the death of a general who had shown sympathy for a more democratic France, in June of 1832.
We have a tendency in the United States, wrongly, to see Europe as a stable collection of historic nation-states, when in fact most of the "countries" we take for granted today were still menageries of petty kingdoms and dukedoms and such through the 1800s, well after the formation of a constitutional democracy in this country in 1787.
St. Paul's Lutheran in Newark had last weekend their "Deutscher Weihnachtsgottesdienst" which every year I mean to attend, and miss every Christmas season. It's a German language Christmas service they hold, along with singing from the Männerchor & Damenchor of our area and some tasty treats afterwards, one that honors their heritage.
In the 1830s & 1840s, there were many Germans, Italians, Poles and other European exiles here in Ohio who had found their way to the New World after participating in failed revolutions back home. The Poles rebelled against the Russian Empire in 1830 (and were crushed), the Carbonari revolt in Italy rose up in 1834 (and was crushed), spurring the later Risorgimento following 1848 (which was . . . pretty much crushed). In Germany, that "year of revolutions" across Europe also triggered outbreaks of rebellion in a number of the many German "states" but they had been erupting periodically across the Rhine valley from 1833.
Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels met in Paris 1844 as this revolutionary spirit was rising up all around them; they didn't create it, but its presence caused them and their philosophical circle to ask questions about the role of governments in the nation-states still struggling to define themselves, and the place of the people's voice in those decisions. Imperial authority and church autonomy had been the primary forces behind the world that had been, telling citizens their place and their duties and reinforcing status & class divisions under monarchical regimes. What if the new parliaments and citizen assemblies embodied by the American experiment across the ocean from 1787, and the French revolution of 1789, were just the beginning of a social transformation promising equality of opportunity and human rights for all?
Of course, Communism as a global force becomes terribly twisted through Stalin in Russia & Mao in China (let alone the nightmare state of North Korea under the Kim family). As a Christian, it's too easy for me to dismiss Marx's theories as an attempt to do arithmetic without even numbers, or geometry without straight lines, when he casts out faith & religion as "opiates of the people." But his hunger for a different conception of human social roles than his era had inherited is a logical, and even honorable outcome of the forces he saw at play all around him.
Christians and people of good will today still dream of a world where justice is not a dream, but a reality, and ask "how are we to live in community with each other?" In "Les Misérables," the tragic view of social development as requiring armed insurrection and violent revolution is not celebrated, but mourned. And for Victor Hugo, unlike his contemporary Marx, God is not out of the picture. Not at all.
The answers, though, still lie "somewhere beyond the barricades."
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's not much of a revolutionary, but there are moments…tell him what you find revolting at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.