The defendant has already been found guilty, and now the jurors must decide his fate: life or death. On Sunday, March 18, the more than 100 people who gathered at St. Henry’s Church in Nashville were charged with making such a decision in the sentencing trial of Jesus, set in a modern day courtroom.
Illinois public defender Jeanne Bishop and former federal prosecutor and professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota, Mark Osler, served as the attorneys in the trial, along with their co-counsel who are both students of Mark’s. Mark and Jeanne have enacted the trial in several states and just a few weeks ago, enacted it before a packed house at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee.
Mark had the idea for this trial about a decade ago and began researching the parallels between Jesus sentencing and death and modern death penalty laws. This research led to his book, Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment. Mark then met Jeanne at a People of Faith Against the Death Penalty Conference in Atlanta a few years ago, and the collaboration began.
Jeanne is an elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is a long time death penalty opponent, and is a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR). Her sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, was murdered in 1990, along with Nancy’s husband and their unborn child. Jeanne is clear that the death penalty would have done nothing to honor her sister’s memory. Instead, Jeanne left her work in corporate law to begin a career as a public defender, serving those who often have little voice or resources.
As a public defender, Jeanne represents many indigent people in her work and sees parallels between Jesus’ trial and the issues involved in defending those charged with with capital crimes today, including paid informants and questionable witnesses.
The trial itself includes testimony from several witnesses, including Simon Peter, a Roman centurion, the rich young ruler, and Malchus–the high priest’s slave whose ear Peter severs when Malchus comes with the crowd to arrest Jesus. After the closing arguments, the audience is divided into groups to serve as the jury in order to determine sentencing. On Sunday, all gave Jesus a sentence of less than death after deliberating for 20 minutes as to whether or not he met the aggravators for a death sentence.
No matter what the audience’s feelings about the death penalty are, Mark and Jeanne hope that this experience helps them to think about Jesus’ trial in a different way, providing a new perspective on the issue of the death penalty and the way it is currently applied and administered.
Particularly at this time of the year, as Christians experience the season of Lent through which Jesus’ followers prepare for his execution, the trial provides yet another way of living that experience anew and reflecting on its implications for the death penalty today, a penalty primarily affecting the poor, people of color, and those with mental illness or disability.
Thanks to Jeanne and Mark and St. Henry’s for a powerful Lenten lesson.
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