Trial of Jesus: Austin, Texas

Last week, John and I drove to Austin to see Mark Osler and Jeanne Bishop do the Trial of Jesus at First Baptist. I wrote about the trial last year, but this was my first time to see it. I met Osler four years ago, and it was great to see him again. But I gotta tell you, I’m pretty happy about something else that happened. I got to meet Jeanne Bishop. Razorites, rejoice!

The most recent update to Bishop’s story is here, and I highly recommend it. In these mock trials (this was the 12th), she serves as Jesus’ defense attorney. Osler is the prosecutor. When they take this show on the road, they present it as if Jesus has already been convicted of blasphemy, which is considered a capital crime. The trial only covers sentencing.

I hadn’t been in a Baptist church in awhile, and it’s been even longer since I was in one that wasn’t a country Baptist church. This was a downtown-type of First Baptist, with enormous organ pipes. Something was hanging in front of them that I couldn’t identify.

“I love the nets,” my husband said.

Oh, that’s what they were. Nets.

The “stage” in front of the nets was set with two rectangular tables covered in black cloth. Each lawyer had a green-and-white take-out cup. Water or coffee, I’m sure.

One thing brought me up short right from the beginning. It was the defense’s opening, when she said that we get to decide whether this man will be strapped to a table and have drugs shot into his veins until he is dead. For a minute, I was confused: Wait, didn’t he die of crucifixion? (As if that’s better.) But putting the execution in the terms of how capital punishment actually happens in Texas, well, I decided at that moment that no matter what else happened, I was not going to vote for him to be executed.

There were two law students (or former students—I can’t remember), one working with the prosecution and one with the defense. The students and Osler and Bishop took turns deposing the witnesses. Those witnesses were a Rich Young Ruler, Simon Peter, a Centurion and a Woman. For the rest of my life, when I hear Bible stories involving those four characters, I will picture the people on stage.

None of them seemed to be acting. The rich young ruler seemed personally offended. He had gone to Jesus to learn how to obtain eternal life and received an answer that would have ruined the lives of his family and employees. It helped me see the subversive nature of Jesus’ advice, even if it was just for this man.

Simon Peter didn’t have a lot to say beyond, “Yes,” and “That’s correct.” He looked uncomfortable. He looked like he didn’t want to be there. At first I didn’t like that he wasn’t more outspoken, but then I thought that maybe if Peter had been dragged in front of a jury, he would have been out of his element, and he probably would’ve tried to say as little as possible, especially since his own testimony around that campfire was being used against Jesus. After all, he was the prosecution’s witness—not the defense’s.

The man who played the centurion was a big middle-aged guy. He talked a lot, the way I assume a man in his position would. But he didn’t do so well under the cross examination. He faltered a bit, didn’t recollect some of the events correctly (and the attorneys could use the Bible as evidence, like a deposition). But the important thing to the centurion was that Jesus healed his slave. He didn’t care about the rest.

The woman who played the Woman caught in adultery—she was stunning. She had that perfect blend of pride and shame. She made me want to reverse the conviction of Jesus that had already taken place so he could go free.

But that wasn’t in play. He’d already been condemned. The question for us, the audience—the jury—was whether he deserved the death penalty. I did not know we would informally break into groups of 12. We had two questions: 1) Would this man continue to commit criminal acts if not put to death, and 2) Should he be put to death? Like most of the pretend juries that night, we decided yes on No. 1 and no on No. 2.

It was hard for me to decide, knowing this story so well. I tried to imagine that if I’d just heard both attorneys, say, on “The Diane Rehm Show,” I’d think Jesus was a threat. But if I’d heard the testimony of one of the people he healed or forgave, I’d think the threat was overblown.

The part that surprised me was that the prosecution did not take issue with Jesus’ powers. They couldn’t explain them, sometimes calling them “magic tricks.” Other people referred to them as supernatural powers. I couldn’t help thinking of X-Men—Jesus as Mutant. But that complicated the verdict because if he does have these powers, can he even be locked up? Can he even be put to death? The power of God is not something regular juries have to contend with, but it was a factor in this case.

I wanted so much to vote with Bishop, who made a compelling case for love, for mercy. Sometimes those things can feel very squishy. They’re not—her story proves it. Love can be the hardest choice of all. Mercy can be the risky decision.

As the evening unfolded, I realized we are all caught in this thing—this huge net—whether we want to be or not. Any one of us could be called to be on a jury that would decide a capital case. And whatever opinion we might have when we walk into that courtroom, that opinion can be brought into question by the testimony of witnesses, by the questions and arguments of attorneys, by the very members of our jury. That bothered me. It really did.

The prosecution also made me think about some of Jesus’ more uncomfortable sayings about swords and fire. I can’t say I understand those sayings. Those are passages I like to skip over. More healings, please. More forgiveness for wretched sinners. Can’t we overlook that thing he said about the temple being destroyed? He didn’t actually hurt anyone with those whips, did he? Suddenly, I felt like I’d fallen through the looking glass.

I don’t know how Osler continues to prosecute Jesus. He has said it is hard on him, and I get that. But it’s hard on Bishop, too, to defend Jesus. She said she’s only won once. She sees over and over again the kind of courage it takes to not condemn.

I forgot to mention the most important actor of all—the man who played Jesus. He opened not his mouth. He let his attorneys speak for him (women!). He was a young man with a neat beard. He wore a gray shirt over a white T-shirt. He played with his hands during the deliberation. He was so easy to overlook.

Comments

  1. What an interesting twist on the story! I love it. And the Texas-local flavor was interesting too

  2. Wow. This sounds so powerful, and you captured the dynamics so well. This line of yours nearly killed me, “But the important thing to the centurion was that Jesus healed his slave. He didn’t care about the rest.”

    Because some days, that’s all I really care about.

  3. Amazing. For some reason, my subscription to your blog did not make the transfer to the new design, so I’m now playing catch-up. :>) It will take some time.

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