By Jeff Brumley
Mark Osler will leave First Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, Thursday evening spiritually drained. Seeking the death penalty for Jesus Christ, he said, always does that to him. “It is very dark,” said Osler, a former federal prosecutor and Baylor law professor known for his trial-of-Jesus book and mock court proceedings. “I end feeling exhausted and morally conflicted.”
That the Austin event comes during Holy Week gives it even more gravity, he said. And others note that staging a mock death penalty hearing in Texas may touch nerves in a state where capital punishment has undergone intense scrutiny in recent months.
But touching nerves is what the program has been about since its beginning 12 years in Waco, where Osler first staged it over several weeks at Seventh & James Baptist Church, his home congregation at the time. The idea had come to him after reading a newspaper article about a condemned killer’s last meal, and then realizing communion had been Christ’s last meal.
After Osler’s presentation, audiences must vote for or against death for Jesus using their own states’ laws on capital punishment. Osler said that often leads to a conflict between deeply held religious beliefs and support for capital punishment.
“I do think there is a Christian imperative to engage with this issue,” said Osler, who now teaches law at the University of St. Thomas law school in Minnesota. “It matters that one of the primary roles of Jesus was that of a capital defendant.”
Leading the pack
Bringing the presentation to Texas may bring some added tension, said Alan Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice, an Arlington-based nonprofit group that promotes due-process rights. Osler serves on the group’s board. “Coming to Austin to do this is particularly interesting, because Texas has been the state that leads the pack … in the number of people executed,” Bean said. “When people think of the death penalty, they think of Texas.”
A string of recent cases have a growing number of Texans questioning the morality and need for capital punishment, Bean said. Fueling that has been “a whole string” of DNA exonerations, mostly in rape cases, which cast doubt on the reliability of evidence used in death sentences. The execution of Cameron Todd Willingham has jolted Texans since his 1992 arson conviction was determined to be on questionable evidence, Bean said.
“The upshot is, did we execute an innocent man?”
Throw in reports about the execution of mentally unstable prisoners, “and I think that’s what’s eating at people.”
Bean said Osler’s presentation at First Baptist, Austin, is timely and appropriate, because it exposes the tension between belief in capital punishment and belief in Jesus Christ. “Mark’s presentation is very good along those lines, and because of who he is – a law professor and a former prosecutor – he has a lot of credibility” in Texas, Bean said.
Impulse for revenge
The realistic way Osler conducts the mock death penalty phases also lends credibility to the process, said Mercer University President Bill Underwood. Underwood was a Baylor law colleague and fellow Seventh & James member tapped by Osler to play defense attorney in the initial trial 12 years ago. Underwood was ideal for the role, because he had represented a death row inmate during his law career.
“It was an opportunity to encourage people in our church to think about the death penalty from a different perspective than they had before, and that is why I was willing to do it,” Underwood said.
Underwood said he, too, had never thought about his faith being grounded in the execution of an innocent person. Participants also struggled with the realization that, like modern juries, those who condemned Jesus may also have believed he was guilty.
The trial also exposes a conflict in many people between the teachings of Christ and fervent support for capital punishment, Underwood said. “Part of what Jesus is teaching is setting aside this impulse for revenge and retribution, and it is something very difficult for very good people to do.”
Part of the attraction for First Baptist, Austin, was the opportunity for spiritual growth, said Senior Pastor Roger Paynter.
“We lead the country in executions in Texas,” Paynter said. “Jesus was executed as a common criminal, and I thought Holy Week would be a good time to have this experience.”
Paynter emphasized that the church isn’t taking a position on capital punishment by hosting Osler and Jeanne Bishop, a Chicago-based public defender who argues for life in prison during the mock hearing. Instead, it is meant to push participants to ask themselves if they could vote for death for Christ or anyone else, and how that squares with their core Christian beliefs.
“It helps us anticipate what Good Friday is with a whole new depth,” Paynter said.
They will also get an in-depth education on Texas death penalty law, said Osler said, the author of Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment. To recommend execution, Texas requires juries to determine that the prisoner poses a continuing threat to society.
Osler said he will try to prove Christ could have undermined the social order. “The way he challenged fundamental principles, there is a good argument that maybe yes, he will present a continuing threat.”
Bishop, who will argue for life in prison, has her own understanding of the death penalty: 20 years ago her sister and brother-in-law, and their unborn child, were murdered.
So far, Osler said, he has never succeeded in getting Christ condemned to death. There are at least two reasons: Bishop always makes a convincing case, and “part of it is trying a case in front of the defendant’s followers.”