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Serial Podcast and Just Mercy

I got sucked into the Serial podcast, just like the rest of North America. I loved it. I loved the real-life drama, the true-crime evidence, the ability to judge people's intentions and the validity of their testimonies. I loved playing detective, weighing the evidence, surmising guilt and innocence. I loved how it distracted me from the drudgery of painting my basement staircase. I was an enthusiastic consumer of the story of Adnan and Hae, and will vehemently defend my conclusion that Adnan didn't do it. (Argue with me. I dare you.)

Just after I finished listening to Serial, I read the book Just Mercy, the memoir of a lawyer who defends death row prisoners in America's deep south. This one wasn't so much fun. Truth wasn't up for grabs in this story—it punched me in the gut. Stevenson introduced me to the plunging holes in our justice system; the frequent and egregious violations of due process; the real people behind the glaring statistics of children in solitary confinement, executions of the innocent, racism trumping fairness. Just Mercy didn't ask me to be an entertained spectator like Serial did; Just Mercy expected me to be a human being.

Serial asked me to consider whether Adnan should be a prisoner, but Just Mercy expected me to consider my assumptions about who prisoners are in the first place. I don't have a family member in prison. Lots of folks do, and it makes it easier for them to un-learn what politicians and pundits have been counting on us assuming for decades: that prisoners aren't human, aren't complex, aren't worthy of grace and mercy. Thinking of prisoners as more than the worst thing they ever did is a new and sometimes difficult concept for me. It's forced me to wonder whether there's a fine line or a deep chasm between rehabilitation and revenge—and whether the practices of solitary confinement, mandatory minimums, and the many collateral consequences of conviction have crossed that chasm and simply ruined the lives of people so loved by God—no matter what their sin.

Serial asked me to consider if the system had a hiccup in the case of Adnan, but Just Mercy asked me to re-think the assumption that our criminal justice system is fair, that it works, that we need it to keep us safe. The more I learn the more convinced I am that Adnan Sayed was one of millions who were forced to play with a stacked deck, whose guilt or innocence had more to do with their complexion than their actual deeds.

All this has been a slow confrontation with my own privilege. Millions of folks in this country never held the assumptions I did to begin with, because they've lived with the curtain drawn back their whole lives. They've known that the system was never meant to keep them safe, it was meant to keep them oppressed.

For those who want to join in peeling back the curtain and exposing the true injustices inherent in our justice system, I invite you to subscribe to our upcoming Restorative Justice newsletter. You'll find opportunities to learn, to share, and to speak up to those who can make meaningful change. Hopefully it will be one more resource to help us as Christians to get out of our armchairs and into our voting booths, expect our justice system to live up to its name.

You can also sign up for an upcoming two-day workshop in Grand Rapids called “Restorative Practices for Congregations”. Two leading practitioners in restorative practices, Mark Vander Vennen of Shalem Network and Bruce Shenk of the International Institute of Restorative Practices, will lead us through two days of learning around becoming a restorative community and how to facilitate circle-based practices. You can contact me at to register. 

Editor's note: This is the second in our two-part series on Restorative Justice. Read the reflection of Dorothy Vaandering, a professor who studies restorative justice, on her husband's art show which also explores the topic.

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

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