Current Student News

Apr 05

“Trial of Christ” Challenges Audiences to Consider Mercy in Death Penalty States

Published on: Thursday, April 5, 2012

     Justice and mercy are always held in tension according to former federal prosecutor, and current University of St. Thomas School of Law Professor Mark Osler.  This perspective stems from his first hand experience with areas of law where there is no mercy, such as federal crack/cocaine sentencing and the death penalty.  But as a man of faith, Osler has also witnessed the power of redemption, and is working to give the condemned that life-saving second chance.

     During the past two Lenten seasons, Osler’s advocacy for the elimination of the death penalty has taken a narrative turn, and Osler has donned the mantle of prosecutor once again, this time in one of the most infamous trials in history.  Osler updates the role of the biblical Caiaphas, and fellow attorney Jeanne Bishop represents the defense.  The story of the gospels is transported into a modern courtroom.  The trial is not scripted. The jury is made up of audience volunteers. Witnesses are briefed just like any other witnesses. Much of the content of the trial or cross-examinations is fresh upon each re-enactment, but always in the end Osler passionately calls for the jury to hand down one sentence, death to the criminal defendant Jesus Christ.  The prosecution almost always wins.

  Osler and Bishop take their re-visitation of the this key part of the Passion to churches and universities in states such as Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Texas, which have a strong support for the death penalty.  Osler, Bishop and other presenters never actually oppose the death penalty as part of their trial presentation, but hope to start a dialogue.  Osler wants the audience to begin to merge their faith and their thoughts about the death penalty.

      “The center of the Christian faith is an unjust execution.  That is significant,” Osler said.  Osler’s preparation for the trial has been rooted in the New Testament gospels, and the events of the trial raise important questions, but one certainty, Jesus was a criminal defendant.  Could Jesus have died another way?  His death may have been according to God’s will, but why as a criminal?  Why make the trial so pivotal to the story?  The injustice of it all just smacks in the face of the reader, and of Osler’s audiences.  Osler hopes that as audiences engage these questions, they will move towards being troubled about the death penalty, if not completely against it.

     Much of Osler’s material for the trial came from the process of writing his 2009 book Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment. The first time he did the trial, however, was 11 years ago in Waco, Texas.  Then last year, a friend from Richmond, Virginia asked Osler to do something during Lent at his church, the Church of the Holy Comforter.  The prospect of doing a death penalty awareness event at a church right on Miami Avenue in the capital of the number two state for executions was impossible for Osler to resist. 

     Bishop, a native of Chicago and third generation Presbyterian elder, joined Osler for the event.  Bishop lost family to murder in the early nineties and sits on the board for Murder Victims Families for Human Rights.  Her loss, the ensuing trial, and her work as a public defender and law professor lend a unique, critical perspective to discussions on the capital punishment.  Other regular participants in the trial are Phil Steger as Peter, and 2nd year UST law student Sarah Sommervold.

     The Trial of Christ has been presented eight times in the last three months, and over the past two years has received press coverage on CNN’s website, Perez Hilton, and Tennessee Public Radio’s Your Weekly Constitutional with Stewart Harris.  And the trial is just the tip of Osler’s workload.  He is still teaching, writing, and building out UST Law School’s innovative commutations clinic.  For Osler, seeing change makes all the effort totally worth it.  “People’s minds change when we turn away and allow them to grapple with their thoughts and what we’ve said,” he said. 

     Osler has had hard and encouraging discussions about capital punishment with a range of individuals due to the Trial of Christ, including the average parishioner and former United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who also served aslegal advisor to Texas Governor George Bush during the high profile Karla Faye Tucker execution.   This unique chance for advocacy motivates Osler. 

     “Advocacy is only worthwhile if you’re talking with people who disagree with you.  There’s no point in going to a Unitarian Church in Minneapolis where they already disagree with the death penalty.  You have to go where they support it.  That makes advocacy worthwhile,” he said.

     The next Trial of Christ presentation will be on October 9th at evangelical Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  For more information on the trial, including video from previous presentations visit the page at the School of Law website.

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