“Mine is the way of the Lord.” In just seven words from the musical Les Mis, policeman Javert explains how religion causes conflict. Javert’s God is one who rewards the righteous, but that righteousness must be demonstrated by obedience to the law. It is a righteousness that must be earned. So it is with all religious systems, and with the stakes so high and with each religion having different rules, dividing lines are drawn and the stage is set for conflict.
By contrast the man Javert is hunting, Jean Valjean, is a lawbreaker who must be caught and punished. But Valjean’s life has been utterly transformed by the unmerited grace and mercy he receives at the hands of the Bishop. In response he turns his life around and becomes a better man.
The story makes plain that religion based on our having to do something in order to win God’s favour inevitably sets up barriers between the obedient and the disobedient. But the Gospel of Jesus, properly understood, brings them down for we are all equally in need of His unmerited mercy. Thus it is that the Apostle Paul, once a zealot for conformity to religious rules, declares to friends that the only thing he has to boast about is Jesus.