The narrative inspiring Mark Osler’s book, Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment, is compelling.
In 2001, while teaching at a conservative Christian law school, this former prosecutor re-conducted Christ’s trial under Texas law in his Baptist church in Waco. With Osler cast as prosecutor, a colleague offering the defense for the savior, and the congregation as jury, the case lasted four Sundays. In the end, it was the jury who was hung. Jesus walked free with the second best thing to an acquittal: a jury too confused and too conflicted to make a conviction.
As someone who opposes the death penalty, who has traversed the terrifying security borders between freedom and captivity in order to visit with men living in minimum security, maximum security and death row prisons, who believes in restorative rather than retributive justice, and who simply loves a good story, the premise of this book gripped me immediately.
So I was a little disappointed with the oftentimes dry reporting of information following the compelling story set out in the introduction. With examples drawn largely from Osler’s previous life prosecuting convicts in Detroit rather than his experience prosecuting Jesus with Texan Baptists, a little of the story’s power was lost with each page turn.
That being said, the comparisons of each stage in Jesus’ trial as outlined in the Gospels with what would be experienced by a contemporary defendant in Texas is well worth the read. From types of informants and witnesses used to methods of arrest — from denials of habeas to the power of the state and governor, from the dubious uses of violence and humiliation against the accused to theories of innocence — Osler stacks up numerous compelling comparisons to stimulate the thought and conscience of the reader.
While at times the connections made are strained and their significance left uncultivated, Osler’s comparison of the Last Supper with a cultural fascination with prisoners’ last meals is particularly poignant; his discussion of habeas corpus, timely; the role of unnecessary, punitive humiliation, chilling.
Whether he intends it as such, the muddiness around his theory of innocence is thought provoking. Sometimes it sounds like Osler thinks Jesus was guilty, despite a few moments late in the text where he affirms his innocence. The same sort of slippage occurs in his examples of his career prosecutions. Furthermore, his allusions to incongruous Christian anti-abortion/pro-death penalty stances as related to theories of innocence are never fully unpacked. While this lack of clarity might be viewed as a problem, however, it forces the reader to come up with her own theory and thus invites a critical engagement not made clear in the text.
This book is more legal than it is theological. Osler admits that from the beginning, but it strains the reader at moments when theological interpretation seems necessary or desirable, such as in discussions of the Eucharist or the humanity of Christ. Jesus appears neither fully divine nor fully human in this book. He is a somewhat bland character who is reduced to his legal status even though the author refers to him as an object of faith and devotion.
While at times the legal comparisons beg for theological interpretation, however, it is also through them that the author’s voice is most clearly heard. Moments when Osler’s clear frustration with a broken legal system is exasperatingly apparent come across as intensely personal, unedited, unfiltered. It is here that his legal expertise and obvious emotion compel the reader to desire her own better understanding of the criminal justice system.
Osler touches on statistics of wrongful convictions, overviews of pivotal Supreme Court decisions and memos, and the roles played by racism and classism in the United States. He thus exposes his readers to the reality that an ethical stance, and more significantly a faithful stance, in regards to the death penalty is much more complicated than trading an eye for an eye or even turning the other cheek.
At 144 pages, this is a quick and easy read for anyone seeking an interesting and thought-provoking introduction to the topic. Its narrowness of focus is not its weakness, but rather a strength as it leaves the reader hungry to learn more.
Natalie Wigg-Stevenson is a doctoral student in theological studies and a fellow in the theology and practice program at Vanderbilt University. She is currently a candidate for ordination at First Baptist Church, Nashville.