Valjean's transformation is amazing, but it happens at the very beginning of the story. What follows is his long obedience in a world that is just as systemically broken as it was before he changed. What hit me afresh in this re-telling was the overwhelming opposition he faces in his efforts to do good, and the seeming hopelessness of his actions. His goodness-- in the vastness of the corrupt society he lived in-- was like spit in the ocean.
For two and a half hours, I watched one character after another stand up against injustice and get destroyed. It seemed that despite their best efforts to do good in the midst of so much wrong, their most valiant courage to fight against the injustice of their day, evil "prevailed." This is seen most obviously in the barricade. It was a brave stand against a corrupt government, and it was destroyed in less than a day.
As I watched, I was tempted again and again to lose hope. Why fight it? Why try to stop something that seems so unstoppable? Sometimes the Thenardiers approach-- stay alive and get what you can out of people-- seemed a more attractive approach to me. It's certainly safer, and less painful. In fact, when I think about it, the way they turned out makes perfect sense. In a world that dark, it seems that the only choice was get hard or get run over. So what motivated these characters to choose the latter? To choose good, even if it means suffering or death? Like Marius, the only survivor at the barricade, we may often think, "My friends, don't ask me/What your sacrifice was for."
I realized that this is at the heart of the Christian experience. It's not philosophical to acknowledge the brokenness of our world, it's simply honest. Things are not as they should be. In fact, things are so bad that innocent children are murdered in their elementary schools and young women are taken from their homes and sold into the sex-trade. We may not have a corrupt King on the throne, but our world is not so different from Valjean's after all.
So what motivated him to persevere with good in the face of such overwhelming evil? What motivates any of us to oppose the forces that seem to stop for no one? To stand in harm's way for the sake of good, knowing it often means we will get gunned down in the process?
The answer is whispered in the story itself. It ends not with a sense of despair and pity for those who "failed" in the fight against evil, but with the promise of victory to come and hope for those who died in the process of its arrival. I realized, this is what the work of Jesus Christ in the world does for those who receive His rescue-- it gives the promise of ultimate victory over evil and therefore the energy and purpose to stand against it, even now, whether or not we see its arrival in this life. It's why Fantine could die with a smile on her face even without ever seeing her daughter again, and why Valjean could forgive Javert with no bargains, even though it meant the continuance of his probable pursuit. Good does win out in the end, and because that hope is sure, we can stand for it now, no matter what.
In the second book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a fearful king asks, "What can men do in the face of such reckless hate?" The answer he gets is, "Ride out with me." Face the evil. But why? For the hell of it? To go out with a bang? No. We ride out because Jesus Christ has already faced the evil and risen victorious over it. And He is returning to bring that victory to completion.