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May 26, 2010

"Jesus Christ, Capital Defendant"

The title of this post is the headline given to this new commentary by Professor Mark Osler now up at the Huffington Post.  The full piece is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in either Jesus Christ or capital punishment, and these portions extends the piece's criminal justice insights beyond just the death penalty context:

The witnesses against Jesus conflicted and weren't credible, so the prosecutors searched for more who might tell a better story. In contemporary prosecution, this is akin to the search for defendants who will cooperate and testify credibly in exchange for a good plea deal, a process that sometimes skews justice.  Have you ever wondered why that servant girl found Peter in the courtyard and asked if he knew Jesus?  To a prosecutor, the answer is easy -- she had been sent to find additional witnesses to bolster the case.

Or take even one seemingly farcical part of Christ's trial, at its conclusion.  We are told that the prosecutor, Caiaphus, was frustrated with these conflicting witnesses and ripped his shirt, yelling, "Crucify him!" Sadly, that is a physical manifestation of an emotion most prosecutors will feel at one time or another.  There can arise within prosecutors (even within me, at times) a strong belief that the defendant is guilty and dangerous even when the evidence has failed to prove that true, leading to an indescribable frustration.  It is in these moments that prosecutors most often stretch, argue unfairly, or twist facts in an effort to bend the jury's will to what the prosecutor believes fervently to be true.  It is this passion that too often creates injustice in our own day, as in Christ's.

None of these echoes of Christ's journey in our modern system, of course, is in itself an overwhelming argument against the death penalty.  Nor is any bit of that story more of a condemnation of capital punishment than the fact that Christ came upon a legal execution and told the executioners that they did not have the moral authority to continue the killing (in John 8, the stoning of the adultress).  Still, I do think that there is something powerful in simply considering Christ as a criminal defendant.  That subtle change in perspective can change worlds.  No, Christ was no murderer. He was the opposite of the venal criminals who largely populate death rows.  Yet, it is at Christ's invitation that we visit him when we visit those in prison, and I would imagine that there is no exception for death row.  If it was God who wrote the story of Jesus as a criminal defendant, then it was God who told us that how we treat criminal defendants is important, and we need to heed that message even when it runs against our most fervent urge towards retribution and finality.

May 26, 2010 at 09:54 AM | Permalink


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If Mr. Christ had had a federal public defender, Mr. Christ would have been acquitted, and the this world would be a much better place; I'm not so sure about the world to come.

Posted by: anon13 | May 26, 2010 12:07:54 PM

"Still, I do think that there is something powerful in simply considering Christ as a criminal defendant."

Yes, if you portray as a criminal defendant someone who has not broken any law a modern, democratic, secular state has or would have, the world can be made to look oppressive indeed. Such are the uses of fantasy. (Admittedly, most fantasies are more mundane, like, "I didn't mean to shoot him, I just meant to scare him," while knocking over the liquor store).

Sure enough, if, like Mr. Osler, you make up your own story, you can write your own conclusion, plus a lot of faux "illuminating" scenes along the way. The only thing different about Osler's is that it enlists a Christian meme to bludgeon opponents into silence. When this same tactic is used by right-wing evangelists, it gets called out right quick. Somehow I don't think that's going to happen here.

I have a different suggestion: Let's see if there's "something powerful" about "considering" Timothy McVeigh as a criminal defendant.

Oh wait! We don't have to use our imaginations! We can actually base our "considering" ON FACT! Lan' sakes alive.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 26, 2010 12:50:52 PM

I know Prof. Osler is a good friend here. However, what a knucklehead, believing us to be children willing to buy a fairy tale. He is using a mythical character. He is placing him in a modern situation. And he is peddling his opposition to the death penalty in a misleading way, comparing us to the Roman Empire.

Here is what this misleading professor is not telling us about the lawyer profession. Reason has a specific technical meaning in Scholasticism. Why not have other words than reasonable as central to the lawyer, mainstream, average, intelligent, common sense, what my wise grandmother would do, useful, clever, etc.? The reason? Reason is the human ability to perceive God. The intellect is misled by the seven deadly sins, greed, sloth, etc. The best guide to making moral decisions is not the intellect. One must rely on the New Testament. And St. Thomas Aquinas trained Henry of Bracton, whose case book describes the case of today. The New Testament is the story of Jesus. Therefore, reasonable, means according to the New Testament, and the reasonable person, who must remain fictional to stay "objective," is Jesus Christ.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 26, 2010 6:32:46 PM

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