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Mark Osler

Mark Osler

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Ripping My Clothes at Easter

Posted: 04/22/11 12:55 PM ET

In my days as a federal prosecutor in Detroit, I played a role in cases against Hezbollah, Chinese snakeheads, crack dealers, and brilliant counterfeiters, but this may have been the toughest one of all.

The judge was a former attorney general.

My opposing counsel was a trial skills professor, author, career public defender, world-famous advocate for victims' rights and against the death penalty, and a former Northwestern homecoming princess.

The defendant was the son of God.

Last Saturday evening, with former Virginia Attorney General Bill Broaddus as the judge and Chicago public defender Jeanne Bishop as the defense attorney, we conducted the sentencing phase of the capital trial of Christ under Virginia rules at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church on Monument Avenue in Richmond, not far from the statues of confederate heroes and the Capitol of the second most active death penalty state, behind only Texas.

The point was to juxtapose our Christianized political culture (especially in places like Virginia) with the unjust execution at the center of that faith. We cast Jesus as a criminal defendant, because if you believe that the life of Jesus on Earth was scripted by God, it must mean something that one of his most prominent roles was one he shares with the lowest among us.

I was thinking of ending my closing by ripping my shirt. Maybe grab off a button, perhaps push a finger through the fabric and jerk it upward, against the seam, until it gives.

It was not my idea. The tearing of clothes is borrowed from Caiaphus, who served as prosecutor in the Biblical trial of Christ. At the end of the trial, he becomes angry and rips his clothes while crying "Execute him! Execute him!"

That part of the story always seemed funny to me, almost slapstick. Now that I approach it as a prosecutor, though, it is beginning to make sense.

What Jesus taught does nothing less than rip at the very fabric of society's conventions. He rejected his own family, and tells a follower to neglect even burying his own father. He would undermine our economy, too, by requiring us to give what we have to be poor. In such a society, wouldn't we all want to be poor? How can an economy survive with such incentives?

Nor did he leave us a way to protect ourselves. Turning the other cheek is not our society's response to provocation, nor can it be. Surely, we cannot follow him there, or it would be our end. Even our intellectual life would be imperiled -- he rejected the educated and literate, and instead recruited to his side an ignorant fisherman as his top lieutenant.

If we take Christ's teachings literally, he devalues family bonds, the profit motive, self-defense, and even the wisdom of the learned. He leads us to a God who challenges us at every turn, and demands that his followers be constantly unsettled by the disjuncture between the society they inhabit and the demands of true faith.

To live by Christ's word, then, would be to tear at the fabric of society, as he seemed to know. It may be that in the end, that torn fabric -- of Caiaphus's shirt, of the curtain that tore when he died -- that is the truer symbol of Easter than the crocuses by the snow outside my window or even the cross itself. That tearing may be the greatest act of love, the true sign of hope, and seed of redemption for a society that is too often too sure of itself.