The Blacklist and our need for sin-eaters

Stephen Woodworth

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

So confessed Raymond Reddington (James Spader) in the season two finale of NBC's The Blacklist. With Thursday’s premiere of season three, it seems appropriate to cast light on this little phrase once again.

The Blacklist prides itself on showcasing the blurred lines between right and wrong, as it traces the mysterious relationship between Red, a man who sits atop the FBI’s most wanted list, and one of their leading agents, Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). Fans of the series are already familiar with the show’s penchant for shock, and yet the use of the term “sin-eater” may be one of the most shocking moments of all.

Despite Ray Reddington’s seeming familiarity with a wide array of obscure rituals, cultures and practices, it’s still a surprise that he would reference sin-eaters. After all, this is an age in which even the church has become increasingly uncomfortable with the term “sin.” As Philip Yancey wrote last year, “Although almost every sermon in my childhood church centered on sin, the word has vanished in the years since then. ...Fear of sin, the dominant force of my childhood, has nearly disappeared.”

And what of Reddington’s allusion not just to sin, but to sin-eaters? To be honest, there are very few historical references to such figures, save a few found in the annals of the history of Wales. In Welsh Sketches, Ernest Silvanus Appleyard wrote this of the practice:

“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 minds the practice seems a kind of syncretism, combining the worst of medieval superstition, folk religion and misguided Christianity. And yet, the ritual also has a bit of truth about it. 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 is that humanity is always wrestling with notions of guilt and forgiveness. As Yancey wrote,“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 seeks relief by looking for someone else to take the blame: 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 also look for scapegoats because, truth be told, we need scapegoats – or, more specifically, we need a scapegoat. We are unable to carry our own burden. We are desperately in need of a sin-eater. Not a beggar who merely offers a gesture or a television character who makes a dramatic claim, but someone who is forgiveness incarnate. Not grace that costs “two shillings and sixpence,” but the most costly grace of all. It’s a grace that I hope awaits the tortured souls of The Blacklist this season.

Humanity is always wrestling with notions of guilt and forgiveness.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, History