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Prosecuting Jesus in Pasadena

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Azusa Pacific University's motto is "God First Since 1899." It is there, on October 18, that I will stand before a crowd and condemn Jesus. The night preceding, I will do the same thing at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, an evangelical graduate school for future ministers.

What will I say? I expect that I will point to some unusual facts about Christ -- for example, that Jesus healed slaves, but did not free them. I will probably argue, too, that he chose illiterate followers rather than the learned people of his time, and that he didn't seem to have much interest in capitalism. In the end, I will ask that he be killed.

I'm a Christian, a genuine follower of Christ, so this is a dark exercise. It pits the faithful side of me against the prosecutor I once was (and still am at heart--a true believer in punishment and incapacitation). I do it, though, because I am condemning Jesus to make him relevant to our own age, and to an important decision that Californians face.

We will be conducting the sentencing phase of the trial of Jesus under California's own rules. The point is to put into juxtaposition our audience's ideas about Jesus with their thoughts on capital punishment, a few weeks before California votes on a referendum to potentially abolish the death penalty in that state. I will be the prosecutor; Chicago public defender Jeanne Bishop will represent the defendant. At the core of this exercise is an inescapable truth: That the story of Christ turns on an unjust execution, and his story is largely one of a criminal defendant.

It isn't a play, and there is no script. Ms. Bishop and I treat it as the trial lawyers that we are, reacting to the testimony as it comes in, making our arguments, and then dividing the audience into juries so that they may deliberate. Like a real trial, there is much the audience will not see or know: The pain I feel in making my arguments, or the fact that for my opposing counsel there is the long shadow cast by the murder of her own pregnant sister and her husband by a 16-year-old. Criminal law is like that; it is all tragedy.

There is no explicit argument for or against the death penalty, only the implicit message that this is an issue that should engage our faith, regardless of which side we are on.

We have done this before, in Minnesota, Illinois, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma. Like a real trial, we finish our arguments exhausted with tension and emotion, then watch silently as the jury is instructed. The people then form their juries and begin to deliberate--sitting forward, hands gesturing, making points and counter-points, as we watch the arc of their movements.

When the decisions come back they are announced, and the crowd gets ready to go. As they do so, I have noticed this: There is an air of solemnity, of troubledness, to them as they file out. There is no small talk or laughter, just murmurs and nods. It is a reflective stillness.

A society is defined, in part, by who it chooses to kill. If our society is influenced by faith, that faith should enter into those choices, as well.

The Trial of Christ will be presented at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena on Wednesday, October 17 at 7pm in Payton Hall, Room 101; and at 6:30 pm on October 18 at Azusa Pacific University's Hall of Champions/Felix Event Center.