Like many Americans over the last few weeks, I have been spending a good amount of my free time watching the Netflix documentary, “Making a Murderer.” Without giving away too many details for those of you who haven’t seen it, “Making a Murderer” follows the story of Steven Avery. Avery, a Wisconsin man, was found guilty of sexual assault in 1985 and spent 18 years in prison before DNA evidence proved that another man had committed the crime and Avery was released. Due to the circumstances surrounding his case, Avery filed a lawsuit against his county, the former sheriff and the former district attorney. During the interviews for this lawsuit, a woman went missing on the Avery property and after a much publicized investigation and trial, Steven Avery (along with his nephew, but that’s another layer I don’t want to get into) was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison.
I know, an uplifting story. So why am I bringing this up? Unlike most of the articles out there now, this post won’t argue over Avery’s innocence or provide alternative theories to the crime or criticize the American justice system. No, what I want to point out from my binge-watching experience is a quote that one of Avery’s lawyers said during the documentary:
“Most of what ails our criminal justice system lie in unwarranted certitude on the part of police officers and prosecutors and defense lawyers and judges and jurors that they are getting it right. That they are simply right. Just a tragic lack of humility in everyone who participates in our criminal justice system.” – Dean Strang
Some of you may be thinking, “She just said she wasn’t going to criticize the American justice system.” I’m not! Give me a second to get there…
What struck me about this quote is that Strang, in my opinion, hit the nail on the head. When it comes to these big bodies like government or court systems or businesses or churches, the reason why things work or don’t is because of the people within those systems. It’s so easy to criminalize a group or even a leader of a group, but what it comes down to is the way people within that group think. So when did people begin to think that they “are simply right”?
My thoughts? It happened a long time ago.
This week in worship, Pastor Tom Berlin spoke about “what slavery did in America and to America” as part of our “Race Matters” series. He went through the progression from slavery to Jim Crow laws to redlining and other unjust practices and explained how the way these practices were portrayed to the white public affected how they perceived African Americans. As Tom said, “If you ever wonder why some white people experience emotions of fear or distrust when they encounter a person of color, understand that our brains have been conditioned this way for hundreds of years.”
So much like this conditioning, I think that people have been conditioned for centuries to think that they know best. We think that we can do it ourselves, that we know the answer, that we don’t need any help. There is story after story of people in the Bible who thought they “could handle it,” but we know how a lot of those turned out.
I mean, look at it in terms of the Avery case. It’s easy to look at this horrible crime and the fact that this man is in jail for it and assume that those around you “got it right.” We’re taught to assume that the police officers or sheriffs will catch the person who did the crime. We want to believe that juries always persecute the guilty and free the innocent and that judges give out the fair sentences. But it’s not always like that…and do you know why?
Because we’re human. We don’t know everything. In fact, we don’t know a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. When you really get down to it, we don’t know who committed this crime. We don’t know why people do things they do. And the truth is, we aren’t supposed to know. We’re not the one who is all-knowing. As Proverbs 11:2 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Maybe we need to remember that as we go about our lives. Maybe it’s time we address our “tragic lack of humility” and acknowledge that we don’t always “get it right.”