Reflections from Sleepy Hollow, 1.6: “The Sin Eater”

Ichabod RedcoatSleepy Hollow’s characters sell the show. The series’ command of historical facts is erratic, and “far-fetched” doesn’t begin to describe its rapidly mushrooming mythology. With lesser personalities portrayed by lesser actors, this show would be nothing but nonsense. The fact that so many viewers have instead immediately embraced it speaks to the strength of Abbie Mills and Ichabod Crane as protagonists we care about, relate to, and want to learn more about. The moving scene at the climax of this episode, in which Abbie and Ichabod are painfully saying their good-byes, proves that they are the heart of the series.

I worry, though, that the treatment of Ichabod in “The Sin Eater” risks distancing him from us. I don’t mean the revelation that, during his Revolutionary days as a loyal Redcoat, he oversaw the  torture of Arthur Bernard (played by Tongayi Chirisa), a.k.a. “Cicero,” an emancipated black man who published a “treasonous” pamphlet advocating American independence. Discovering that characters grapple with flaws and past failures doesn’t necessarily make them less appealing. The exploration in earlier episodes of Abbie’s guilt for betraying Jenny, for instance, made her more complex and sympathetic. Now, however, Sleepy Hollow seems reluctant to let Ichabod wrestle with genuine guilt over a genuine failing. This rush to absolve him leads to some unsatisfying consequences.

“Cicero” and Sin

I studied a freeze frame of the title page of Bernard’s pamphlet as closely as I could. It appears to be a real publication entitled Plain Truth; Addressed To The Inhabitants of America, printed in Philadelphia in 1776. Its author did write pseudonymously, but under the name “Candidus.” Scholars, however, identify Candidus as James Chalmers, a Maryland loyalist who spent the pamphlet’s eighty-four pages rebutting Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Chalmers builds to this conclusion:

Volumes were insufficient to describe the horror, misery and desolation, awaiting the people at large in the Syren form of American independence… [I]t would be most excellent policy in those who wish for TRUE LIBERTY to submit by an advantageous reconciliation to the authority of Great Britain… INDEPENDENCE AND SLAVERY ARE SYNONYMOUS TERMS.

(Even in olden times, folks knew how to SHOUT using ALL CAPS!)

In our world, Plain Truth wouldn’t have earned the wrath of the British Crown. In Sleepy Hollow, however, it ultimately leads Bernard to death, a death for which Ichabod has always held himself responsible. He believes if he’d acted sooner to help Bernard escape, the man would have lived.

Tongayi Chirisa

Tongayi Chirisa

I think he’s right! I thought it spoke well of him that, as Abbie’s conscience haunted her about her past sin, Ichabod’s refused to let him forget Bernard. But rather than give Ichabod an authentic chance for confession of sin and repentance, as Abbie was given in “For the Triumph of Evil,” Sleepy Hollow’s writers let him off the hook. Channeled through the Sin Eater, Bernard himself tells Ichabod, “My death saved your soul.” If he hadn’t died when he did, Bernard suggests, Ichabod might never have found his destiny. “Only you chose to see [your part in my death] as a sin,” Bernard assures him, “when all along it was your salvation.” Ichabod doesn’t need Bernard’s forgiveness (or, presumably, God’s); instead, he must forgive himself, because the Horseman feeds on Ichabod’s regret.

The conversation made me cringe. It reduces Bernard, an intriguing character in his own right, to someone defined almost entirely by his relationship to Ichabod. What’s more, because Bernard is black, it makes him a “magic Negro,” a stereotype I’ve discussed before. The “magic Negro” possesses secret knowledge and reveals it to white people in trouble, rescuing and redeeming them. “Magic Negro” stories apparently focus on a black character, but actually marginalize them. Bernard has been the victim of both slavery and imperialism—but we are told, in effect, it’s all good, because Ichabod Crane—our good white man who was an abolitionist and fellowshipped with Mohawks—needed Bernard in order to “find [his] way to [his] true home.” For a series that features so many actors of color in so many prominent roles, Bernard’s story seems a misstep, at best.

Perhaps Bernard was intended as a Christ-figure—certainly, his nobility and insistence on higher truth in the face of the abuse he receives from Ichabod and the other Redcoats calls to mind Christ’s similar composure and single-mindedness during his trial before Pilate—but the easy dismissal of Ichabod’s “sin” guts much theological significance from this story. Are there times when we must forgive ourselves? Absolutely, and the Gospel can give us the perspective and power we need in order to do so. But can all sin be addressed through self-forgiveness only?

Sleepy Hollow itself seems to know better. Earlier in this very episode, Abbie defined sin as “a transgression of divine law.” That’s an answer my own, Reformed tradition can certainly endorse; the Westminster Shorter Catechism, for example, defines sin as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (Q. 14). But are we really to believe Ichabod has never transgressed God’s law? Didn’t Ro’kenhrontyes (in “For the Triumph of Evil”) tell Ichabod, “Your sins aren’t mine to judge?” Is Ichabod, then, the only “judge” of his “sins?” Are we the only “judges” of ours?

We’d often like to think so. We would like to pretend that we’ve simply been mistaken, that we’ve been “beating ourselves up” over nothing, that we simply chose, wrongly, to see mistakes and imperfections as “sins.” But sin is more than a matter of self-condemnation. We deserve God’s condemnation. The good news is not that we have not sinned, but that God’s grace is greater than our sins—that when we sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2.1-2).

Dining on Death

Sleepy Hollow's FreemasonsIf you believe any of the myriad theories that are floating around the Internet, the Freemasons must be involved in any generations-spanning conspiracy surrounding esoteric knowledge and spiritual struggle. I think it’s in their contract.

This week, the Masons finally reared their endlessly fascinating head in Sleepy Hollow. According to Abbie and Jenny, Masons are on the right side of the fight to avert the Apocalypse; they’re “the good guys,” along with the Knights Templar (another go-to group where centuries-spanning conspiracies are concerned; find some facts about them in Wendy Brydge’s recent post at her Seeker of Truth blog). Masons do count several Founders among their ranks, though not Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (who was the Declaration of Independence’s youngest signatory, but who only signed reluctantly).

Getting accurate information about secret societies and closed fraternities proved difficult—they are, you know, secret and closed—so instead I rooted around for background on this episode’s other central concept.

I found a fascinating description of sin-eating, a practice whose “roots are deeply buried in antiquity,” in a 1926 book called Funeral Customs, by one Bertram S. Puckle (the most amusing author’s name you’ll see today). Just as Sleepy Hollow portrayed it, the ritual is believed to effect “the transfer of a personality for good or for evil, by means of the consumption of certain food.” Unlike Henry Parrish, however, sin-eaters generally performed their services for those who’ve just died rather than those just about to. Eating a piece of bread and drinking a bowl of beer passed over the corpse, the eater took “upon himself the sins of the deceased, who, thus freed, would not walk after death.” (Sounds like ghost or zombie insurance.)

Puckle also reports:

Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse… [living] in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper… [O]nly when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten…

The Sin EaterIt’s not clear whether other people abhor Henry Parrish. John Noble expertly plays a man who has voluntarily withdrawn from society, burdened by his inexplicable ability. I wonder whether we’ll learn if Parrish’s value at the time of death has made him, too, a man reviled the rest of the time—a scapegoat, one might say (see Leviticus 16.21-22).

I initially thought the idea of a Sin Eater was about as far away from Christian theology as one can get. Certainly, Christians don’t believe sins can be mystically transferred from one person to another, through gastrointestinal or other means. But then I realized we aren’t strangers to the idea of one who willingly bears others’ infirmities and carries their diseases, who is wounded for their transgressions and crushed for their iniquities, “from whom others hide their faces” (see Isaiah 53.3-5).

Is Jesus the ultimate Sin Eater? In some sense, he’s the exact opposite. He’s not the eater, but the eaten. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,” he promises, “and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6.54). Some Christians take his words literally; others, symbolically or spiritually; still others strive simply to trust those words’ truth without figuring out their “how.” No less an intellectual than John Calvin declared, regarding Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper, “I will not be ashamed to confess that it is too high a mystery either for my mind to comprehend or my words to express… I rather feel than understand it” (Institutes, IV.17.32). Whatever Jesus meant, he meant that we feed on him in order to be “severed from the Horseman” of Death.

And yet… The idea of the Sin Eater made me think of one of my favorite visions of the future God has in store for the world. The prophet Isaiah foresees the day when God will host a bountiful banquet “for all peoples,” a feast “of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (no counting calories in the age to come). But the main dish on this miraculous menu, is not served by God to us, but eaten by God for us: “he will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25.8).

Maybe the notion of the Sin Eater is a glimmer of the truth that sin, death, and evil are not destined to consume us, but to be themselves consumed, completely “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15.54).

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

About Mike

Michael S. Poteet is a teaching elder (ordained minister) in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a freelance writer-researcher and wordsmith. His most recent publication is the youth study guide for Half Truths (Abingdon Press). Follow him on Twitter (@WriterMPoteet).