The Reality of Les Miserables in the US today
Early in the pandemic, Joo Park noticed a worrisome shift at the market he manages near downtown Washington: At least once a day, he’d spot someone slipping a package of meat, a bag of rice or other food into a shirt or under a jacket. Diapers, shampoo and laundry detergent began disappearing in bigger numbers, too.
Since then, he said, thefts have more than doubled at Capitol Supermarket — even though he now stations more employees at the entrance, asks shoppers to leave backpacks up front and displays high-theft items like hand sanitizer and baking yeast in more conspicuous areas. Park doesn’t usually call the police, choosing instead to bar offenders from coming back. “It’s become much harder during the pandemic,” he said. “People will say, ‘I was just hungry.’ And then what do you do?”
This Washington post story immediately led me to reflect on the reality of Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables.
Victor Hugo himself wrote to his publisher over 160 years ago…
I don’t know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbour slaves as well as empires that have serfs.
Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: “open up, I am here for you”.
He stands in the midst of other artists who use their skills to rivet our attention on what we would rather not see. Artists through the centuries have challenged superficial visions of poverty and inspired dedication to direct services improving the condition of the poor.
Vincent Van Gogh, John Steinbeck, Jacob Riis, Georg Handel represent just a few. Soon TV and streaming media will feature Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol?” It inspired many people to look at their lives through the lens of their past, future, and present. With a beautifully crafted story, he created an awareness of some of the roots and long-range effects of poverty.
But has anything changed besides accidentals?
Israel’s prophets talked, but their audiences didn’t listen.
Little has changed in 3,000 years: telling people they’re behaving badly and need to change is never popular. Like the prophets of the Bible, anyone who tries this nowadays is likely to be ignored or derided at best, if not silenced in a variety of ways.
Given how little the Israelites listened to their prophets, what are we to think of the prophetic dimensions of Vincentian ministry today?
- We bear responsibility
Ezekiel was told that if he didn’t deliver his warning, the blood of others would be on his hands. The prophets were tasked with bringing a horse to water, not forcing it to drink.
- Even one listener is enough
While the Israelites as a whole ignored the prophets, we have to assume that a minority did listen to them and change their behavior. Some human misery was avoided as a result.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, It is a process that will not be completed this side of the world to come.
Click below for an audio version of this Vincentian Mindwalk