Back in 2014, I started hearing a bunch of hubbub around a popular new podcast called “Serial.” In the 12-part series, a journalist from Chicago dives deep into a murder case in Baltimore from 1999. The true story includes crazy twists and turns, and much of her research seemed to point to a possible wrongful conviction of the man who was sentenced to life in prison.
The story was engaging, and each episode left me begging for more. “Serial” topped the iTunes podcast charts for weeks, and the first two seasons have amassed more than 340 million downloads to date — easily making it one of the most successful podcasts in the platform’s young history.
This story of a real-life murder captured the attention of millions, and it seemingly started a strange entertainment revolution.
Then Netflix released an original documentary series called “Making a Murderer.” It was similar to “Serial” in many ways: A man was imprisoned for a murder that he claims he had no involvement in. Much like “Serial,” the show created a narrative that the judicial system may have made grave mistakes that led to an innocent man spending his life in prison.
I later listened to a follow-up podcast called “Undisclosed” about the same case from “Serial.” Then I heard about “S-Town.” And then “Up and Vanished.” “Serial” is currently releasing its third season, and “Making a Murderer: Part 2” recently debuted on Netflix.
For a guy who avoids conflict and hates scary movies — for reasons I can’t explain — I find myself glued to these stories. And apparently I’m not alone (just look at the iTunes top 100 podcast chart).
I should note: All of these shows are fairly explicit due to the nature of the stories, and I quickly found it is not wise to listen to them while going on an evening jog by myself at dusk. (What’s behind that lamp post? Is there a person chasing me?) Being scared out of your mind does tend to make you run faster.
Why do these stories capture us so powerfully? Why are so many podcasts dedicated to real-life crimes and unsolved mysteries? How crazy is it that we’re watching real, ongoing court cases — for entertainment? Why are we so drawn to these true stories of mystery and injustice?
God of Justice
There are likely many answers to those questions, but for me, I think it has something to do with our human nature. As we read in the book of Genesis, mankind was made in the image of God. It’s hard to fully understand what that means, but I believe we intrinsically carry some of the same characteristics of God.
Repeatedly through Scripture, we’re reminded that God cares deeply about justice. The prophet Isaiah called the Lord “a God of justice” and later said that God loves justice and hates “robbery and wrong.” (Isaiah 30:18; 61:8). Isaiah also instructed us to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17).
Right and wrong matter to God. He cares about truth and facts. When justice is withheld or evil people go unpunished, I think it grieves God’s heart because unrighteousness is counter to His nature.
And maybe that’s why we’re drawn to these stories.
I believe a deep thirst for justice is part of what it means to be human. When we witness injustice, we should stand for truth. It should break our hearts when innocent people are imprisoned or killed. It’s OK to be outraged by attorney malpractice and crooked systems that lead to unfair treatment and oppression of the less fortunate.
While all of that is true, we also have to remember a few other Scripture references about the God of justice:
Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
Some bad people are going to get away with doing some really bad things in this world. While it is always right and honorable to stand up to injustice, we can also have some solace knowing that God knows all and eventually all justice will be served and righteousness will prevail.
Until that day, we all have a responsibility to care for widows, defend the fatherless, stand up to oppressors and seek justice for everyone. Sometimes those good deeds may be carried out by lawyers or journalists at NPR and Netflix, but sometimes it should also be you. If you’ve been watching or listening to any of these shows, maybe it has stirred a desire for justice and mercy and truth deep within you.
It may not be wise to fill our minds and hearts with too much darkness and violence. But as I watch and listen to these stories, I’ve remembered that God cares about the details of each case. He knows who is innocent and who is guilty. Even when we don’t understand why bad things happen, I have faith knowing that He is ultimately directing and weaving human history together for good (Romans 8:28).
If you find yourself listening to these stories (particularly if you’re running by yourself in the dark of night), remember God is ultimately in control. Ask yourself how God may be asking you to stand up for the oppressed. Remember God’s character, His likeness within you, and His ultimate stand for justice in the end.
Copyright 2018 Matt Ehresman. All rights reserved.