“You’re My Sin-Eater”

May 29, 2015 at 12:26 pm


“I am a sin-eater. I absorb the misdeeds of others, darkening my soul to keep theirs pure.”

So confesses Raymond Reddington (played by James Spader) in the season two finale of the NBC show Blacklist. For those already devoted to the series, this piece will offer no spoilers. For those unfamiliar with the show, this reflection does not require any prior knowledge. What it does demand is a theological curiosity and a cultural interest in the intersection of religion and pop-culture. When, why and how these two apparent strangers meet is always an interesting moment. Not least of which is this little phrase that comes at the end of a long season of a show that prides itself on highlighting the blurred lines between right and wrong through a sordid mess of twists, turns, lies, hidden agendas and flashbacks. A show in which, despite all of its penchant for shock, the emergence of the word “sin-eater” may be one of the most shocking moments of all.

Even though Ray Reddington’s character is depicted as a fugitive who seems eerily familiar with a wide array of obscure rituals, cultures, and practices, his reference to “sin-eaters” rises very close to the top of the list of his obscure statements. Given the fact that the phrase appears in a prime-time television show amidst an age in which even the church has become increasingly uncomfortable with the term “sin” (see Phillip Yancey’s piece in OnFaith) only highlights it’s mysterious presence.

But more to the the point– what in the world is a “sin-eater?”

I asked the same question and was required to do a bit of research, discovering in the process that there is very little known about these historical oddities save a couple of old references found in the annals of the history of Wales. One such work is Welsh Sketches, penned by Ernest Silvanus Appleyard who writes,

“When a person died, the friends sent for the sin-eater of the district, who on his arrival places a piece of salt on the breast of the defunct, and upon the salt a piece of bread. He then muttered an incantation over the bread, which he finally ate; thereby eating up all the sins of the deceased. This done, he received the fee of two shillings and sixpence, and vanished as quickly as possible from the general gaze; for as it was believed that he really appropriated to his own use and behoof the sins of all those over whom he performed the above ceremony, he was utterly detested in the neighbourhood — regarded as a mere Pariah — as one irremediably lost.” 

To our modern ears the practice sounds full of peasant ignorance, steeped in a kind of syncretism that attempted to tie together the worst of medieval superstition, folk-religion, and a healthy dose of entirely misguided Christianity. And yet, the ritual also has a bit of truth about it (albeit hidden beneath thick layers of very bad theology). In fact, if one looks close enough at the world in which we dwell, one will not find it too difficult to discover sin-eaters still lurking in our streets. They may answer to different names but the fact that humanity is always trying to wrestle with themes of guilt and forgiveness surrounds us. As Philip Yancey writes,   

“Much as we would wish otherwise, we have a deep, inescapable sense that something is wrong with the world, with our neighbors, and even with ourselves.”

With this “sense that something is wrong” constantly gnawing at our hearts each of us is tempted to look for relief by casting blame on another soul; a scapegoat, a sin-eater. We blame our parents (or lack thereof), our bosses, our lovers, our friends, our enemies, our siblings…but almost never ourselves. We would rather pay a homeless man roaming the streets to eat bread off our lifeless bodies than carry the weight of our own sins.

We look for scapegoats because, truth be told, we need scapegoats. Or more specifically, a scapegoat. The problem for us, for all of humanity is not that we want to be set free from our sense of guilt, but that we are always searching for that freedom from those who are unable to carry the load. We are all desperately in need of a sin-eater. Not a beggar who merely poses as forgiveness, but forgiveness incarnate. Not a social outcast with nothing to lose, but a King who is working towards gaining all of the world back again. Not a grace that costs but “two shillings and sixpence,” but the most costly grace of all.

Read again for me the passage above from Appleyard and then spend some time letting your eyes fall afresh over the words penned by Isaiah in the 53rd chapter of his book:   

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. (53: 4-6)

Is it strange that even in our late-night entertainment we find the world searching desperately for the gospel, a gospel that is often hidden by a price so high (good works to satisfy the gods) that no one is able to pay? And might this entertainment itself often serve as the sin-eater for our souls to whom we’ll pay another sixpence so we can forget about our guilt for just another hour or so? Elizabeth Keen calls Reddington her sin-eater, and Redington claims he is one. The reality is that both need to keep looking for a beggar who has found better bread than the one laid on the cold body of another sinner. The “bread of life” (John 6:35) is the only one worth eating – and the only one worth sharing with fellow beggars who are all looking for a sin-eater to quiet their restless conscious, and take away their sins.