There are things that Scripture may be vague or silent about, but justice is not one of them. Justice is integral to the character of God. “The Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice,” Isaiah 5:16 makes clear. In turn, justice became an expectation for Jewish society, a matter of covenant with a holy God. Justice wasn’t just an ideal; it was institutional. And in the New Testament, justice is treated as a way of being, a matter of personal and communal character. “The one who does what is right is righteous,” declares 1 John 3:7. Again, justice wasn’t an ideal; to be just was to live as Christ. As I see it, when it comes to justice, the Bible doesn’t give Christians a choice. Followers of God should be justice-minded people. Simple as that.
And yet, how aware are Christians of the ways in which justice is enacted in the real world? It can be easy, I think, for Christians to separate God’s justice from the quote-on-quote “justice” that occurs in our society. After all, isn’t the world broken? Shouldn’t we just slap a “Not of This World” sticker on the proverbial back windshield of our life and stay away from all the madness until Jesus comes back to make everything right?
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This season, we’re holding open the courthouse door, inviting you inside. There are shocking, fascinating things happening in plain sight. Hear episodes 1 and 2 today at serialpodcast.org, or wherever you listen to podcasts. (Art: CGI by @mothanimation, mural by @adammmmaida)
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I don’t think so. I think the brokenness and fallenness of our world is even more reason to examine worldly justice. If Christians are to be, as St. Francis prayed, a “channel of [God’s] peace,” then we must go where things are most turbulent. If we are to bring justice to the world, then we must see how justice plays out in the world.
Today, I have one suggestion for how to do that: start listening to Season 3 of “Serial.”
Now, hold on, you’re thinking. Isn’t that podcast about murder? And to answer you, yeah, it is. Or was. In the first season, released in 2014, the podcast covered the potentially wrongful conviction of a seventeen-year-old boy named Adnan Syed. But this third season, which released its first episode on September 20, 2018, is exploring a new topic altogether: the justice system in America.
This season is a complete departure for “Serial.” Instead of focusing on one individual’s story and unfolding it week by week, they’re focusing on one place—the Justice Center Complex in Cleveland, Ohio. Yeah, that sounds boring. But it’s not. As host Sarah Koenig notes in the first episode, if we’re going to take a long, hard look at the criminal justice system, “we need to spend at least a year watching ordinary justice in the least exceptional, most middle-of-the-road, most middle-of-the-country place we could find.” So Koenig and her team head to Cleveland, and spend a year in the courthouses, prosecutors’ offices, jail and police headquarters. What they find is shocking, heartbreaking and so very important.
Like the best reporting from This American Life (remember S-Town?), they show us the real human beings that populate this very specific world. We meet Russ Bensing, a veteran defense attorney of over forty years, beloved by colleagues and a master of the system, but with little to no patience for his assigned clients. We meet Judge Daniel Gaul, an unconventional and controversial judge who uses sentencing hearings to criticize the life choices of the convicted, often veering into racial stereotypes, but who sees himself as a kind of “tough love” father figure. We meet Devon Holmes, an innocent man put in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and then released a year later, for reasons as vague as those behind his incarceration.
I know what you’re thinking, so let me warn you: Serial Season 3 isn’t necessarily easy listening. For one thing, it can be pretty technical. There’s a boatload of legalese. Ever heard of a “life tail” or “flat time?” Me neither. Luckily, Koenig and her co-host Emmanuel Dzotsi are there to hold our hands and help make sense of it all. The most difficult part, though, is how discouraging it can be. It’s one thing to have an intellectual sense of how racial politics, certain Supreme Court decisions and countless other factors inform the criminal justice system today. That’s disheartening enough. But then, to know that, throughout the system, from the prosecutors to the defense attorneys to the police, there is a predominant feeling of, “Well, what’re you gonna do?” A shrug and a “That’s just the way it goes.” It’s rough.
So, why is “Serial” Season 3 such a good thing for Christians if it’s such a downer? Here’s my simple answer: it upset me.
And I think that’s valuable. Being upset makes me want to take action. Listening to the third season of “Serial” will do a lot of things for you: it will inform you, force you to rethink issues you thought were simple and expand your heart. Most importantly, you will learn. I honestly think that learning can make us more loving, justice-minded people. But do know that it’s only a step toward justice. Real justice requires action.
And what does that look like? It looks like a million things. But here’s one thing you and I can both do, come November 6, 2018: we can vote from a position of knowledge. Let’s vote, and let’s be informed voters. Let’s learn about the names on the ballot. Not just the big ones, but the judges, sheriffs and attorney generals, too. If “Serial” Season 3 has shown me anything, it’s that real people’s lives are affected by those we put in power. James 1:27 says that “pure and faultless” religion is this: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Perhaps, by voting from a place of knowledge and compassion, we can inject a bit of that “pure and faultless” religion into the criminal justice system of America. I hope so.