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Is turning the other cheek a sucker’s ploy?

'Les Miserables' starring Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean Anne Hathaway as Fantine was nominated for Golden Globe for best musical

"Les Miserables," starring Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway as Fantine, was nominated for a Golden Globe for best musical or comedy. The 70th annual Golden Globe Awards will be held Jan. 13, 2013. | Universal Pictures

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Updated: March 25, 2013 6:34AM

‘If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well ... .”

— Jesus Christ, quoted in Matthew 5:39-44


I’ve seen the musical version of “Les Miserables” four times on stage and listened to the Broadway soundtrack so many times that — well, it’s a miracle the CD hasn’t worn out. The movie version now in theaters — one of the most-nominated films up for the Oscars to be presented tonight — contains some disappointing singing but makes up for that with unbelievable, seen-close-up performances by the likes of Hugh Jackman and sure-to-win-an-Oscar Anne Hathaway. I’ve seen the film version just twice, so far.

Out of all the novels I’ve read, all the music I’ve heard, all the movies I’ve seen, this musical is my No. 1 favorite work of human art.

And no wonder this Victor Hugo story, especially with its plot amplified by such soaring melodies and poetic wordplay, hits a nerve. It takes on just about everything important in life from romance to politics, from crime to women’s lib, from parental love to religious faith, from raunchy humor (it is, admittedly, not fit for young children) to undeserved death.

But most intriguing of all is the question, “What would happen if we really turned the other cheek?” That’s a big part of what “Les Miz” is all about.

The idea of turning the other cheek was advocated by Jesus during his Sermon on the Mount and even in the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us ... .”). But it has fallen seriously out of fashion in this era of mandatory prison sentences, zero tolerance for school truancy and “shock and awe” on the battlefield.

The story centers on a 19th century Frenchman named Jean Valjean. As it begins, he is serving 20 years in a hard-labor camp for stealing a loaf of bread to feed an orphan. He escapes and is caught trying to filch silverware from a bishop. But rather than turn him in to police, the bishop tells the cops that he TOLD Valjean to take all the silverware he wanted. In fact, he offers Valjean even more of his most valuable possessions.

The bishop then warns Valjean, “I have bought your soul for God.” Valjean remembers that and proceeds to treat others with the same mercy and love the bishop showed him. He uses his burglary proceeds to start a factory and give jobs to the poor. He takes an orphan girl under his wing. When another man is accused of being him and is about to be sent back to prison in Valjean’s place, he tries to sacrifice himself by admitting his true identity.

The story shows us the conflict between three basic ways of looking at life: Valjean approaches all with love and mercy and thanks to God. A comically seedy innkeeper and his wife believe there’s nothing in heaven but the cold, unfeeling moon, so any smart person should steal and finagle as much as he can grab.

Between them is the police inspector Javert, who chases Valjean constantly. Honest and incorruptible, yes. But he’s a totally unmerciful fundamentalist who believes “once a crook, always a crook” and the letter of the law should always be enforced to the last dot. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time would love him.

But what would happen if we lived like Valjean and the bishop? What if we caught a burglar in our silverware drawer and told him, “Take whatever you want. Just remember that you now owe your life to God”?

What if we had turned to Osama bin Laden and said, “That was horrible the way you killed thousands of innocent people. But we’ll prove to you what wonderful people we Americans are, and we hope you’ll show similar mercy back to us.”

This kind of approach has been tried so rarely, it’s hard to say whether it would work. It goes against every ingrained instinct.

When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain turned the other cheek to Nazi expansion at Munich, Hitler interpreted it as weakness.

The closest we have come to embracing the turn-the-other-cheek approach came in the 1960s. The thrust of that era was to understand, counsel and educate the crook, the bum, the welfare mom. Frankly, it didn’t do much to lower the crime rate, or reduce the level of poverty.

By the ’80s, America seemed to reach a new consensus that this lovey-dovey approach had been a flop. Now we have welfare reform and long, mandatory prison sentences. Oddly, at the ballot box, we evangelical Christians seem to be the first to push for more toughness and less forgiveness even as our person-to-person “religious” testimonies talk about Jesus offering undeserved forgiveness for the sinner who repents.

Probation is a form of forgiveness. Yet as a police and courts reporter, I see example after example of habitual crooks who clearly get a “free pass” way too many times. They go on committing burglary after burglary or drunken drive after drunken drive.

Still, would Jesus tell us to live like this if it didn’t work?

If everybody lived by the Sermon on the Mount, we’d all be carbon copies of our favorite grandma. Everyone would be trying to outdo each other with kindness. It would be — well, like heaven on Earth.

But then, Jesus never promised his followers they would find bliss on Earth. Maybe he just expected them to put up with a lot of personal unfairness while looking forward to a real heaven, where the jerks will not be invited.

Near the end of “Les Miz” (spoiler alert here if you haven’t seen it yet), Valjean finally gets a chance to eliminate Javert. But our hero lets his enemy go free. Unable to reconcile such one-sided, Jesus-like love with his sense of justice, the rigid lawman commits suicide.

Just maybe the “Les Miz”/Sermon on the Mount brand of love contains power we never dream.

Parts of this were adapted from a column we ran in 2002.

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