Formations 01.24.2016: Making a Murderer: A Controversy That Hits Close to Home

Luke 4:16-22

In the last month, I have received a recommendation from almost every single one of my friends to watch the Netflix true crime documentary series Making a Murderer. (Don’t worry—no spoilers here!)

Logo for Making a Murderer, Netflix’s wildly popular documentary series

Logo for Making a Murderer, Netflix’s wildly popular documentary series

Two journalists with almost no budget produced the very popular series over the course of ten years. The story covers the case of a man who was proven innocent for a violent crime after wrongfully serving eighteen years in prison, and was then convicted of another violent crime soon after he filed charges against the officials responsible for mishandling his case. The show focuses on the way the legal system and law enforcement officers handled the case, and provides evidence of how media, public opinion, and small town politics impacted the legal decisions throughout both cases. Like the popular 2014 podcast Serial, the documentary doesn’t necessarily operate under a specific assumption about whether the focal character is guilty or innocent. However, the evidence provided throughout the show seems to suggest that the focal character is again being wrongfully convicted, and points to deeper corruption in the legal system at large. The show became an immediate success after it was released to Netflix in mid December, and the backlash came just as quickly.

As a society, we want to believe that our justice system fairly and accurately punishes the guilty and protects the innocent, or that it at least tries to do so. Documentaries and stories that showcase a mishandling of justice and make us question the trust that we put into our legal system make us uncomfortable, at best. At worst, they make us angry. This is one of the major reasons why the show has been such a success—it gets us hooked. Most of us who watch the show can’t help but have a strong reaction one way or the other. Because the events are real, and because we are all rightfully invested in our country’s legal system, we take these processes personally. When someone suggests that the way we have been doing something for the last few decades might be wrong or hurtful, it’s almost impossible to remain apathetic. When something hits close to home, we react strongly.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the most unique reactions come from the people in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin—the setting of the documentary. Most people have reacted defensively, claiming irresponsibility on the part of the two journalists. Others have remarked that they have not and will not watch the show, because it showcases their hometown in a bad light. Many, including business owners, have opened up about how the negative publicity is hurting their town. The show’s creators have shared their experiences of moving to Wisconsin to live at the show’s central location while they conducted research. They explained that while the town was mostly friendly, “the people on the ground, the people in power, weren’t always happy we were there,” and the State of Wisconsin even tried to subpoena their footage at one point. Similarly, two petitions have made it as far as the White House, asking for President Obama to pardon the convicted man at the center of the documentary.

Imagine, now, how Jesus’ words in his first recorded sermon must have hit the influential men in his hometown synagogue. He tells them that things are going to change, the year of Jubilee will finally arrive, the slaves they have taken for granted will be freed, and justice will be given to the oppressed. This week’s lesson asks us to consider how Jesus’ messianic message for his hometown differed from what his community in Nazareth might have expected from their messiah, and how his message might differ from our expectations as well.

“17 Compelling Facts about Making a Murderer,” Mental Floss, Jan 3 2016,


• What does Jesus’ mission and message mean for your personal life? How does it affect you and the people with whom you are closest?
• What aspects of his mission are difficult to accept?
• Have you ever heard an interpretation of Jesus’ mission or message that offended you, or that you couldn’t disagree with objectively because of a personal stake in the issue? How does it feel to take something personally, and how do those feelings affect your actions and beliefs?
• Have you ever taken something personally and felt wrongfully defensive? Describe the experience, your immediate reaction, and what you did about it.

Reference Shelf

Slavery in the New Testament

All ancient moral teachers took owning men and women as slaves for granted, including the Stoic philosopher Epictetus who was educated while in slavery. No plan to abolish slavery motivated any of the major slave-rebellions in the Mediterranean area, all of which occurred during 170–140 BCE. Slaves performed a wide variety of functions, some quite sensitive, ranging from streetsweepers to executives, fieldworkers to administrators of large estates, handworkers to foremen, including teachers, physicians, and household managers. When set free, most slaves continued their previous work. “Slave-only” jobs were reserved for convicted criminals who as slaves of the empire were expected to die as mine laborers or galley oarsmen.

The NT gives direct evidence that some early Christians were slaves or owners of slaves, e.g., Philemon and his slave Onesimus, the famous text in 1 Cor 7:21, and the exhortations to mutual respect between slaves and their owners in Col 3;22–4:1/EPH 6:5-9 (CF. 1 Tim 6:1-2; 1 Pet 2:18-21). A slave’s treatment was dependent entirely on the character of his or her owner. Neither Jesus, nor the twelve, nor the 120 at Pentecost appear to have been slaveowners. When Paul described himself (Rom 1:1) and Timothy (Phil 1:1) as “slaves of Christ Jesus” he stressed not only their full spiritual dependence on Christ but also their place of honor in the OT tradition of Abraham, Moses, and David.

S. Scott Bartchy, “Slavery in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 831.

Year of Jubilee

Liberty under the Lord, Yahweh, stands out as the main theme. Lev 25:10 urges Israel to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” The theology of the land pivots around the statement of the covenant Lord in Lev 25:23, “the land is mine.” A great transition faced the Hebrews as they anticipated moving from Mount Sinai in the wilderness to the land of promise located among the Canaanites.

Every seventh year the land was to receive the benefit of a Sabbath and lie fallow (Lev 25:2-7). Then, in each fiftieth year, the land would not be tilled and planted for a second consecutive year (25:11-12). Everyone had n obligation to live on what the fields and vineyards produced “of themselves” (25:11). The people could not store produce that came from the land during this time. Ownership of land reverted to the original owner without exchange of money or other goods (25:25-55).

Laws pertaining to ownership of persons carried great significance during the year of Jubilee. Slaves would have freedom (25:10). Hebrews could have other Hebrews as servants, but not own them as slaves. The purpose underlying the observance was that reconciliation with the land and the inhabitants would open the way for liberty to become a reality.

Little evidence supports the idea that Israel faithfully observed the year of Jubilee. The people of the land seem to have minimized the observance of the year of Jubilee, which would have been attributed to the widespread unfaithfulness of Israel to the Lord. Consequently, the year with perhaps the greatest potential became obsolete and functioned mainly as a reference for a unit of time for the people of Israel. One should not, however, overlook the symbolic importance of the year of Jubilee as a sign of God’s insistence that liberty be proclaimed and observed in the land.

Omer J. Hancock, Jr., “Jubilee, Year of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 473.

Michelle Meredith is a graduate of Mercer University, where she was the editor for literary and arts magazine The Dulcimer. She taught third and fourth grade in Mississippi for two years with Teach for America and became even more obsessed with live music and southern food (don’t even get her started on Delta tamales). She loves comedy, board games, roller derby, and hanging out with her dog. She is happy to be back in Macon, Georgia as the associate editor of Formations.


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