For two nights running we had tucked the kids in at the stroke of their somewhat loose "bedtimes" in order to jump headlong into hours of despair, the kind that clings to your soul like a stain, the kind that makes you dream about strangers and thank God, finally, for defense attorneys. If it sounds like an odd thing to choose or look forward to, it's only because you haven't watched the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer yet. In the show, Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man, was imprisoned for a rape he did not commit (DNA evidence freed him after 18 years of incarceration) and soon after his release, was arrested for a subsequent murder of another local woman. The show primarily follows his trial for the murder, which many believe he did not commit and for which he unswervingly maintains his innocence.
I've thought a lot about this.
I've texted friends and emailed colleagues. I showed up five minutes late to a coffee date yesterday then got caught up in conversation with a different friend while grabbing my Earl Grey from the window. "I'm so sorry!" I told my date. "We were talking about Making A Murderer." She understood, because she'd sat with us in a circle of chairs at our Bible study Monday evening, where discussion was repeatedly derailed by Steven Avery commentary. We didn't mean for it to happen, but someone suggested we read from Hebrews 1 and it only took one line, "You love justice and hate evil." (v 9)
Coming off my general Christmas disillusionment, coupled with reading The New Jim Crow and all that happened after that, the show felt strangely, vitally important. We sat glued to the screen, taking necessary mental health breaks to mindlessly scroll Instagram between episodes, our snack plan slowly devolving each night from hot tea and fruit to Cheez-Its and hard cider.
The show isn't gory or terrifying. It's basically an extended Dateline Mystery, minus the Keith Morrison voice-overs. With each hour, it was increasingly hard to ignore the fist of poverty closed around the Avery family. They were despised and rejected by almost everyone. They were regarded as sub-human and as deserving of whatever trouble came their way.
The mom, Dolores Avery, was particularly difficult to watch. Lined by years and trauma, her face told the rest of the story, the most meaningful parts, but also the parts that made me want to shut it all down and pretend I hadn't seen her standing in her cramped kitchen in a fruit-patterned smock, frying dinner for her lost-soul family who somehow manage to survive in spite of everything else.
I'm sure they're not perfect. Casting judgment on those who aren't already under the microscope is damaging business, and I'm not interested. These are real people, ravaged by a system that is slow to offer justice to the poor. To quote Steve, "Poor people lose all the time."
This is true. And if it took a Netflix documentary for more people to see the craters in the system or even to recognize their own brokenness, well, God has moved in far weirder ways.
I don't know if Steven Avery did it or not.
But I do know that many of us keep asking the question, "What can I do?" about things like inequality and lives lived at the boot-end of justice. The world is crying out for a better way, and it will require much of us. But "much" often starts quite small. We can watch this show, walking toward pain when we'd rather turn around and look into our middle-class lives, largely untainted or untested by outside forces. We can lean in to the reality that the poor and under-educated are fed the scraps of what privileged folks like us rightly believe we're entitled to. My family, and particularly Cory, sees this played out on a loop, but Making A Murderer makes it available to the masses. It's not at all the same as watching a friend go down in real time, but compassion begins with leaning our own humanity against another's. Ten hours of screen-time has a way of making the humanity of the Avery family searingly accessible.
I'm not here to talk about the ways our criminal justice system gets things right. The burden of proof falls heavy on them. Of course they do many things well, but what about the rest of the time? What can be done about people who don't know their rights? People unable to afford an attorney? Young men pleading guilty on the advice of an overworked, underpaid public defender whom they met for the first time moments before the hearing? What about that glaring remnant who views the poor as disposable, and preys upon their vulnerability? What will it take to believe this is our problem?
I guarantee, you'll want to turn it off. You'll think it's too much. You'll cuss at your television. You'll inch closer to whomever shares the couch with you. You'll distract yourself with unwise snack combinations. You'll tell yourself your tender heart can't bear the contact burns.You'll skip church the next morning.
It's worthy of all of this, to be saddled with just a sliver of the pain and confusion facing people across our zipcodes.
We're commanded by God to take up the cause for marginalized people, but we cannot care about what we do not know about. In a society that largely values its churches as me-centric, staying up too late to witness the tenuous inner-workings of an entire family on the margins is guaranteed to propel you more towards the good news of Jesus, who spoke their names at his death and who rose up to reclaim them as his own, than church often does.
If you are a pray-er, continue to pray.
If you are a dreamer, continue to dream.
If you are a hoper, please, help the rest of us to hope with you.
But no matter who you are, find a way to do an actual thing.
Even if it begins with something as small as turning on your television.
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