I just saw "Les Miserables" for the fifth time (twice on Broadway, once in Paris, the film, and a regional theater production) and each time I was terribly moved. Why? It struck me that Jean Valjean demonstrates the same courage and compassion that we celebrate with Nelson Mandela. Both, after having been imprisoned for many years, were able to overcome their anger enough to resume their lives and to help other people. Both have fought to overcome injustice and inequality and to change their societies. (Although Jean Valjean is a fictional character, it seems that he and his cause are still alive!)
Think of what might have been the outcomes:
People thrown into prison like Jean Valjean for stealing a loaf of bread for a small child released after nineteen years could easily have turned into hardened criminals. He was saved by a priest's compassion and went on to establish a business, employ many people, and show compassion to a woman who was fired unfairly from his factory.
People who have faced discrimination and cruelty could turn into terrorists or dictators -- we certainly have more than enough of them! Instead, these men have fought for justice and equality.
If only fewer people would be sent to prison for trying to help others (like Jean Valjean) or for opposing discrimination because of race, religion, ethnic origin, etc. (like Nelson Mandela)!
Let us hope that more people who have suffered in prison will find the spiritual resources to become constructive citizens and leaders!