On Maundy Thursday, Mark Osler and Jeanne Bishop will be staging their 12th re-enactment of the trial of Jesus, this time using Texas law and legal procedure.
If Jesus was tried in a Texas court would he have been sentenced to life in prison, death, or would he have been acquitted? Holy Week is the perfect time to reflect on this question and this article from the Austin American-Statesman gives Osler and Bishop an opportunity to explain why they are putting Jesus on trial all over again.
Some might take offense at the very idea of placing Jesus on trial, in Texas or anywhere else; after all, he is the Son of God and all.
But there were good reasons for hauling Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate in the first century. As Jeanne Bishop puts it: “When you tell people to give to the poor and sell everything you own and follow me, or you’re saying, ‘Turn the other cheek; don’t resist an evildoer,’ those are subversive things.”
If Jesus were prosecuted today under Texas law, what would we do?
Would we sentence him to a life behind bars, or would we sentence him to death?
An audience at First Baptist Church of Austin will decide Thursday evening at a modern interpretation of the “Trial of Jesus,” where audience members become jurors and mete out his punishment.
In the live, unscripted mock trial, Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and now a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, plays the prosecutor. Jeanne Bishop, a Chicago public defender who teaches law at Northwestern University, plays Jesus’ attorney. Both are against the death penalty, and though they hope that support for abolishing capital punishment can rise from faith communities, they emphasize that there is no argument for or against it during the presentation. “This is not an anti-death penalty diatribe,” Bishop said.
Osler, the author of “Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment,” said the presentation is only meant to challenge Christians to think about the death penalty in the context of their faith. “For Christians, part of that context is the trial and execution of Jesus,” Osler said.
The mock trial was an idea that came to Osler in 2001 when he was a law professor at Baylor University and read a newspaper story of an execution in Huntsville, an account that included what the convict requested for his last meal. Afterward, Osler went to his Baptist church, where he took the Communion bread and put it in his mouth. In that moment, he said, he realized that the bread, too, was the last meal of a man who knew he was condemned to die. Osler said he reasoned that if God intended for the events in Jesus’ life to have meaning, then it should be meaningful that much of what we know about Jesus is in his experience as a capital defendant.
With the help of Baylor colleagues, Osler soon put on a mock trial of Jesus under Texas death penalty rules. He resurrected the presentation in 2011; the Austin event on Holy Thursday, the day on which Christ celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, will be the 12th in eight states since then, most of them at churches and universities.
A special meaning
The mock trial came to Austin in a roundabout way. Osler contacted First Baptist Church of Austin pastor Roger Paynter after hearing of Paynter’s passionate sermon on the Newtown, Conn., mass killings, which had gone viral. In the sermon, Paynter talked about the tragedy of children “being gunned down” and of the need for gun control and mental health issues to be addressed.
“Mark wrote me and said, ‘If your church is open to preaching what you said, maybe they’d be open to this event,’” Paynter recalled. “It’s Holy Week; what better time to engage this historic trial and re-examine it through the fresh eyes of the penal code?” Paynter said.
The church, he said, is not taking a stand by hosting the event, but continuing a practice dating back to the 1940s of addressing and debating difficult issues and “allowing that sort of intelligent conversation to go on.”
The mock trial has special meaning in Texas, which has executed far more people than any other state since 1976. Beyond that, Osler said Texas combines two elements that should be in tension — the broad influence of Christianity and strong support for the death penalty. Were it not for the support of Christians, there would be no death penalty in Texas, he said.
Christians seem to make a distinction between Jesus’ wrongful execution and the execution of criminals, in part, Osler said, “because Christians tend to see Christ as unimaginably good and capital defendants as unimaginably bad. (But) Jesus taught that, ‘When you visit someone in prison, you visit me.’ He didn’t say when you visit the innocent person.”
At the heart of the Christian faith, said Bishop, is the execution of a man who himself stopped an execution, that of a woman accused of adultery. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the crowd that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. The woman is one of the witnesses Bishop calls.
In 1990, Bishop’s sister, her brother-in-law and their unborn child were murdered in a home invasion near Chicago, a case that did not result in the death penalty. The murders only increased her opposition to capital punishment, she said.
“I understood the grief and loss of someone you love having been taken suddenly and violently,” Bishop said. “The way to honor my sister is not through more bloodshed; digging another grave will do nothing but create another grieving family like mine.”
Weighing the death penalty
In the enactment, Jesus has already been convicted of blasphemy. After witnesses are called and attorneys give closing arguments, audience members break up into juries of 12 and have two questions to decide. First, is there a probability that, if not executed, Jesus would commit criminal acts that would constitute a continuing threat to society?
Bishop said jurors usually answer yes, finding that Jesus was a threat on a number of levels. “When you tell people to give to the poor and sell everything you own and follow me, or you’re saying, ‘Turn the other cheek; don’t resist an evildoer,’ those are subversive things,” Bishop said.
But juries usually answer no on the second question: “In light of all mitigation, is a death sentence warranted?”
“There is so much good Jesus did, even for people who could be considered his enemies,” Bishop said. “He healed the ear of the man who had come with the mob to arrest him, for example.”
For some jurors, the experience dislodges deep thoughts and complex emotions. Some question their beliefs.
Challenged to integrate their faith with their beliefs about capital punishment, “people both for and against the death penalty usually leave feeling troubled,” Osler said. Some have told him that the experience led them to change their death penalty positions.
The church has been a springboard for social change before; witness the civil rights movement, said Bishop, a third-generation elder in the Presbyterian Church. “I believe in the power of churches to be places where we can think about these things together,” she said.
If you go
The “Trial of Jesus” will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at First Baptist Church of Austin, 901 Trinity St. Admission is free, but seating is limited. Make reservations at fbcaustin.org/trialofjesus. For more information, call First Baptist Church of Austin at 476-2625.