Editor’s Comments – Christ Made Sin and Criminal Justice

[1] Bodies are eloquent.1 They do, of course, literally speak out, communicating a range of experiences and perspectives; but they also “act out,” with seemingly infinite communicative potential. Much body “talk,” however, is unintentional, consisting of non-verbal action, expressed in one’s overall manner or way of doing things. Reading such body language, whether dealing with international situations or infants, is one of the most important social skills we learn.
Christ Made Sin and Criminal Justice by Victor Thasiah

[2] The Academy awards remind us that professional actors are highly aware of the possibilities and significance of bodily communication. Charlize Theron expressed this recognition — perceptively, even if indelicately — in an interview on her award-winning role in the 2003 movie Monster as a woman executed in 2002 for killing six men. (Theron’s astonishing achievement earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress, the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress, and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Lead Actress, among others.) Edward T. Krupka, the interviewer, voiced the public’s reaction at seeing the elegant, South African supermodel turned into a serial killer — at once distraught and vindictive. “You shocked many people with your physical transformation. I mean — you know, the weight gain of 30 pounds, the blotchy skin, far from the glamorous roles that you usually play…. Could you go a bit into that?”2

[3] Charlize Theron: “I didn’t want it to be the kind of thing where transforming me into [her] … became just about prosthetics and a fat suit…. I think I knew very early on that [it was about] understanding her journey of who she was…. [T]he only way I was going to do that was to really truly get myself in a place where I felt the same things she might have felt. She wrote in a letter when she was a prostitute [that] she never took her shirt off. She had a baby when she was 13; she didn’t like her body. So, I wanted to get my body to a place, where I felt like, you know … naturally I’m very athletic looking…. I don’t know how I could have played that part with this body. I knew I had to transform my body to get myself into her physical skin — the way she moved in her body…. You know, I come from a dance background; I told stories with my body for 12 years. That stayed with me. I still feel that’s part of my job.”

[4] Theron’s candid remarks say a lot about bodily communication, explaining how bodies tell stories. Inadvertently, her response also suggests another embodied narrative (and an even more stunning performance), namely, the story of God making Christ “to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21),” the story of “Christ redeem[ing] us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’….  (Gal. 3:13)”

[5] The lectionary texts for Ash Wednesday include this terrific (the term terrific literally means: extraordinarily great or intense; extremely good, wonderful; causing terror, terrifying) passage in Scripture: it is said that Christ was made by God to be sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Interpreting Galatians 3:13, often read together with this passage, Martin Luther famously wrote: “All the prophets saw this, that Christ was to become the greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber, desecrator, blasphemer, etc., there has ever been anywhere in the world…. In short, He has and bears all the sins of all men [sic] in His body — not in the sense that He has committed them but in the sense that He took these sins, committed by us, upon His own body, in order to make satisfaction for them with His own blood…. Whatever sins I, you, and all of us have committed or may commit in the future, they are as much Christ’s own as if He Himself had committed them.”3 This is what the body of Christ, in the form of a first-century Palestinian Jew from Nazareth named Jesus, communicates, as the Spirit makes truth transparent.

[6] If this is what the body of Christ “says,” what should the body of Christ in the form of the Christian community “say”? More specifically, in the wake of the recently released ELCA study Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice, what should be our “body talk” to people connected to the criminal justice system? One answer, of course, is that God commands the church to communicate the story of Jesus as gospel — as the gift of forgiveness, reconciliation, freedom, and new creation. But what are the implications of this bloody beautiful exchange between Christ and sinners of righteousness and sin for the Christian community’s ministry and advocacy as and to: victims of crime; the falsely accused; people who have committed crimes; families and communities dealing with crime, violence, and incarceration; and as and to those working in the criminal justice system and associated social service agencies? How should the church as the body of Christ engage public policy on criminal justice?

[7] How fortunate for the church that the ELCA Criminal Justice Task Force explores questions like these in Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice.


1. My thanks to Steve Slaughter and Derek Nelson for conversation on matters related to this column. Derek Nelson has written much on sin. See his new book, Sin: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, forthcoming).

2. “Charlize Theron Interview,” Stumped Magazine (December 2003) http://stumpedmagazine.com/interviews/charlize-theron-transcript.html (accessed February 25, 2011).

3. Luther’s Works, 26:277f.

Victor Thasiah

Vic Thasiah

Vic Thasiah is a California Naturalist and trail runner.  He is the founder and executive director of Runners for Public Lands, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit environmental organization, and an associate professor and the chair of the religion department at California Lutheran University.