Is there forgiveness for Liam Neeson’s sin?

Stephen Kneale writes: Liam Neeson was recently interviewed in relation to his latest film Cold Pursuit about his own experience of pursuing vengeance. He had heard that a friend had been raped by a black man, and confessed that he had, for a time, sought to vent his anger on any black man he could find—though he never actually enacted this. If you haven’t come across it, you can read the interview in the Independent here. If you can’t be bothered to read all that, you can listen to the key controversial bit below (warning: there is some bad language in the interview):

Opinions on this abound and trial by social media has, inevitably, already begun. Gary Younge – a columnist at the Guardian – was wholly unimpressed with Neeson’s story (see here) while former Liverpool FC player, John Barnes, went on Sky News to defend Neeson (see here).

Racism is a live issue

There can be no denying that what Neeson thought, at a particular moment in time in a specific context with whatever other caveats you want to put on it, was racist. It is not a matter of ‘spin’ to say that the attitude that drove him to seek revenge for another horrific act was a racist one. This didn’t happen centuries ago in an altogether by-gone era. This happened in the fairly recent past.

When Neeson’s friend is unable to tell him exactly who did this, that one of the actor’s questions was, ‘what colour was he?’ Younge finds this utterly astonishing that anyone would dare ask this. I find it less surprising. Younge wants to know why he didn’t ask about height, eye colour and that sort of thing. I think we all know the answer to that if we really want to know. It is because most people don’t clock height and eye colour as they are being violently attacked but they do spot more obvious characteristics, like skin colour, for example. Actually, we don’t know what other questions Neeson asked about the guy’s appearance – it is apparent he wanted to go out and batter someone for having done it – but maybe this was all he was told. That he asked about colour, given he wanted to know what the guy looked like, isn’t really the racist bit.

The racist bit is, armed with the knowledge the perpetrator was black, he set about walking the streets for a week to go and batter pretty much any black bloke. Essentially, any black guy would do because he was working on the presumption that all black guys are essentially prone to this behaviour. That is the racist bit. One black guy represents all, one criminal who happens to be black means all black people must be violent rapists.

There is no denying that attitude is racist. Neeson doesn’t try to hide the fact that it was a vile and horrible thing to do – that is, in fact, the point of his story. Sadly, it is an attitude that prevails today. Racism is not something from a by-gone era but still lurks around today, often taking this form of extrapolation from one incident to an assumption of guilt to all who share that person’s ethnicity.

The irony of Gary Younge’s article, of course, is that he excoriates Neeson for extrapolating from one black man to all whilst doing exactly the same in respect to Neeson and white people. Just as Neeson waited to batter any black guy for one black man’s actions, so Younge now insist all white people are definitely racist because of one momentary expression of racism by one white man. It is, ironically, pretty racist. But it serves to show that racism still lurks in the hearts of many.

The world knows nothing of grace

The whole point of Neeson’s story is to show how horrible the attitude he held really was and (in reference to the revenge movie he is promoting) to highlight the hollowness of seeking revenge at all. Neeson was not painting himself as a hero here, he was pointedly casting himself as someone not to be emulated here.

Now, without diminishing what a horrible attitude and thing to do this really was (and Neeson made no bones about that fact), this highlights the problem with a new morality. There is no grace, forgiveness or restoration for those who transgress. It matter not whether it was a hidden attitude brought to light, or an action repented of long ago, what matters is that you broke the rules and there shall be no clemency.

I disagree with Gary Younge’s reading of events that Neeson is somehow painting himself as the victim. He did no such thing. He was painting himself as somebody horrible and was stating only that he had since repented of the attitude that was so foul. He neither claimed to be a victim nor worthy of sympathy. He merely stated this was the case.

It speaks more to the prevailing zeitgeist that an admission of past wrong, and a statement of repentance, can only be cast as an attempt to play the victim and thus no sympathy shall be forthcoming. I would have thought, if we really do abhor racism, whilst not applauding the fact that Neeson was racist, it would be a good thing that he repented of such a sinful attitude. But, lo, there is little, if any, joy over a sinner who repenteth. We can’t allow it because it takes away our right to feel superior about ourselves. Extending grace means remembering sins no more, which necessarily means we cannot use it as a helpful comparative for our moral superiority. We need these whipping boys so that we, by contrast, can feel subjectively good about our own shortcomings.

The world has nothing to offer transgressors

Here we come to the crux of it. Whether its Liam Neeson or someone else, the world simply spits up and chews out those who exist to make us feel superior. So long as we can continue to find offenders out there, we need not look inward at all the potential offences that lie within. If I am offended at what you’ve done – and I make enough noise about it – it takes the focus off of me and anything I might have done. I don’t have to worry about whether I am part of the problem because I have identified you as definitely the problem.

The big issue here, of course, is its a zero-sum game. Each transgressor caught in sin and confined to the rubbish heap of malefactors, each successful purge of the evil doer among us, brings the pointing finger one step closer to the next miscreant, and the next, and the next, until eventually we find it pointing squarely in our direction. If we have spent years cheering and whooping at the downfall of other sinners so as to keep the spotlight away from ourselves, what possible defence will we have when we find ourselves in the dock? Sorry, no matter how heartfelt and sincere your repentance, will simply not cut it. We will be hoist by our own petard as we face the jeering crowds now using us to make sure their own sense of moral superiority remains in tact.

If only there was some other way. If only there was a means by which we could own our sin for what it is in a spirit of genuine repentance. If only we could experience the feeling of knowing that, though we have transgressed, we may nevertheless walk in the freedom provided by grace. If only there was some way of having our sin genuinely punished somehow so that there is no more sin to be punished in us. If only we could, indeed, have the freedom to acknowledge who we really are – with all our faults and flaws – and yet be loved regardless.

I wonder where we might we find such a thing?

(This piece was first published on Stephen Kneale’s blog ‘Building Jerusalem‘.)


Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.


Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

18 thoughts on “Is there forgiveness for Liam Neeson’s sin?”

  1. Quote: “…so Younge now insist all white people are definitely racist because of one momentary expression of racism by one white man. It is, ironically, pretty racist.”

    I am sorry, but I have read Gary Younge’s article, and cannot find evidence to back up this claim anywhere. You are doing Younge’s article (and Gary Younge himself) a gross disservice and badly misrepresenting his argument.

    You have also missed the point of Gary Younge’s article, which is to do with real repentance. Gary Younge asks: what has Liam Neeson done to show repentance? And makes a comparison with someone else who became a life-long anti-racist.

    Gary Younge is bemoaning racism followed by cheap grace. I’m with Gary on this one.

    • I’m glad you can’t find the bit where Younge insists ‘all white people are definitely racist’ – I can’t either.

  2. I find three points in Stephen Kneale’s analysis staggeringly wrong.
    1. He wrote: “Younge wants to know why he didn’t ask about height, eye colour and that sort of thing. I think we all know the answer to that if we really want to know. It is because most people don’t clock height and eye colour as they are being violently attacked but they do spot more obvious characteristics, like skin colour, for example.”

    Really? Are height (“was he tall or short?”) and build (“was he a big bloke or skinny?”) any less obvious than skin colour?

    2. He also wrote: ” Just as Neeson waited to batter any black guy for one black man’s actions, so Younge now insist all white people are definitely racist because of one momentary expression of racism by one white man. It is, ironically, pretty racist. But it serves to show that racism still lurks in the hearts of many.”

    Yet, Younge wrote: “Look into your hearts and tell me who among you has not had racially motivated homicidal urges. Which of ***us*** has not been there?”

    Younge is not insisting that all white people are definitely racist. Instead, he’s insisting that, if we are honest, we are *all* capable of such racism, himself included. Surely, Kneale missing this is an even greater irony than he mistakenly identifies in Younge.

    3. Kneale wrote: “It speaks more to the prevailing zeitgeist that an admission of past wrong, and a statement of repentance, can only be cast as an attempt to play the victim and thus no sympathy shall be forthcoming.”

    Yet, concerning victimhood, Younge was writing about the narrative conveyed by the interview. He says of Neeson himself:
    “We should, of course, not ignore Neeson’s shame in this. We all do things we regret. We are all fragile. It takes courage to admit the things that we are most ashamed of. Indeed from his point of view that’s the whole point of the story. “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that,” he says. “It’s awful. And I’ve never admitted that, and I’m saying it to a journalist. God forbid.”

    However, Younge is then critical of the interview narrative:
    “There are several problems with this narrative, but for now let’s focus on just a couple. The first is that it ignores the very low bar that has been set. Since when did people get credit for confessing that they once thought about killing innocent people on the basis of their race and have since thought better of it? And second, the path to redemption storyline only works if Neeson learns something. But in his own words the moral of his story is this:”

    Prefacing a post with the candour of acknowledging that racism exists today hasn’t prevented Kneale from being targeting a balanced, but not overly generous response from a black journalist more than the person who revealed a past intention to act on racial hatred.

    How can black people see this relative connvance as being motivated by anything other than white solidarity?

    • Yes, whatever a person’s views on Neeson’s redemption, no-one should downplay the racism on display in the story.

      For what little it’s worth, I agree with Younge that Neeson doesn’t appear to have drawn the right lessons from his squalid behavior. If he had, he’d have never used it to try and market his latest movie. Hopefully he’ll get it now.

  3. Thanks Stephen – you’ve articulated the heart of what was bothering me in this narrative too. Then, this morning, Steve Bezos (another high profile man, founder of Amazon) publicly announces his marital infidelity in order to call out those who were trying to blackmail him. Consider the devastating impact of betrayal, thoughts that have led to actual deeds, the breaking of solemn vows …the silence of the Twitterati and associated social media ‘vigilantes’ is deafening.

    I would prefer not to ‘rank’ sins, though somehow it seems right to regard murder as greater than adultery, for instance. Yet Neeson’s sin was in the heart and, mercifully, not enacted (although he admits he had the bludlust to want to cross that line, and the racism to drive him). Bezos’ sin was in both the heart and then in the deeds.

    So while you wrote that “It matter not whether it was a hidden attitude brought to light, or an action repented of long ago, what matters is that you broke the rules and there shall be no clemency.” …I wonder whether the ‘new morality’ may be a little more nuanced, driven by the judgment: “you broke the rules that we think matter more.”

    And underlying that is not merly a perception that some sins are greater than others, but rather a perception that some sins simply don’t really matter and can just be ignroed.

    • Hi Paul,

      I think the issue here is that this was an admission with a plea of mitigation. Neeson described his motivation as “primal”, which would imply a lack of pre-meditation.

      Well, let’s consider a comparison. Imagine a situation in which a well-known American film producer, was interviewed on 60 Minutes before the #metoo scandal and, despite denying that any sexual assault took place, confessed that as a result of a young woman murdering his close friend, he did trawl bars and nightclubs, carrying a vial of Rohypnol (date-rape drug).

      He also stated that he carried this drug in the hope that he could render a randomly chosen woman incapable of fighting back, so he could avenge his friend’s death.

      1) Would you buy into the notion that this premeditation was nothing more than extreme grief, but not extreme misogyny?

      2) Should we consider the producer to be particularly brave for his public admission, as some are calling Neeson?

      3) Given that the situation was supposed to have happened many years ago, how would you advise a young daughter, if she was an aspiring actress and announced that the film producer had invited her to go to his home for a casting call to run through a new script?

  4. I dont quite get the criticism of Neeson. He described a period of time in his life when he had a particular issue with anger and racism. He clearly regrets that sort of mindset and sought counselling following it (in the form of a priest and some close friends). That smacks of repentance. Now whether or not he is being rather cynical in describing such an episode just as his new film is being released, is another question…

    I come from a part of the UK where historically we have had few ‘foreigners’ (whether black, white or pink with blue spots (there’s a few of them around lol)) though today there are more. I personally am on guard regarding my own thoughts, simply because I am not particularly used to ‘non-locals’. Even on the bus I purposefully do not look directly at for example a black person as they walk down the isle as Im sure they get enough ‘looks’. Hope that doesnt sound odd!

    • PC1,

      “I personally am on guard regarding my own thoughts, simply because I am not particularly used to ‘non-locals’. Even on the bus I purposefully do not look directly at for example a black person as they walk down the isle as I’m sure they get enough ‘looks’.”

      Well, who knows? If I’m in your locality on Sunday, I might the black person who’s popped into your Church. Or one of us on the bus might be an unchurched heathen with whom you’re being prompted to bear witness to the Lord’s goodness and redemptive care.

      But, as much as anyone else, the reaction to a direct eye contact would depend on whether the ‘look’ is a friendly smile, a superciliously broken-off glance, or, worse still, a scowl.

      Respectfully, I’d suggest that, if you encounter another black person in close proximity, it would be forthrightly Christian (and not the least bit odd) to resort to the first option.

      • Thanks but you clearly dont use the bus very often. Strangers smiling at you as you walk down the isle would be downright weird, like something out of The Invaders. I find Christians with seemingly permanent smiles on their faces also quite disturbing, so I think Ill keep my straight face verging on a scowl look for everyone, regardless of their colour.

        • In my previous comment, I’m sure that there was no implication that Christians should go around grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

          So, setting aside your hyperbole, I am heartened by your last sentence:
          “so I think Ill keep my straight face verging on a scowl look for everyone, regardless of their colour.”

          A somewhat curmudgeonly countenance might better resemble Ebenezer Scrooge before his epiphany than after, but, nonetheless, the promise of being treated equally without regard to colour far outweighs singling us out blacks for disparate treatment based on an ersatz, misplaced sense of pity (“I’m sure they get enough ‘looks’”), however well-intentioned.

  5. I thought Jonathan Pie had the best, and most succinct response on Twitter.

    “Liam Neeson in a heartfelt interview stated that an emotional trauma made him feel unjustly prejudiced against black people, but he came to his senses, realised his gross error of judgement, and learned from it.

    Social Media: Get the pitchforks, guys! Liam Neeson is a racist! “
    -Jonathan Pie

    • ” but he came to his senses, realised his gross error of judgement, and learned from it.”

      Really? Does Neeson sound like he’s learned from his error when he uses “primal” (as if his behaviour was unconsciously driven) to mitigate his pre-meditation in attempting the violent scapegoating of “some black b******” as racially representative of the rapist?

      Succinct it might be, but Pie’s tweet misses the point by a few angstrom units.

  6. I’d have a lot more time for Neeson if he hadn’t made the revelation in the process of touting some tacky revenge thriller. As, I suspect, would many others.

    Regardless, actors’ personal virtues aren’t something that preoccupy me. I go to see their performance, nothing more. The state of Neeson’s immortal soul’s between him and God. He says he’s seen a priest about it; probably a good idea if he books himself another appointment.

  7. I think it important to note that this insight into Neeson’s darkest thought came in a context, he had just made a film about a man exacting terrible revenge, and the question inevitably arose “ is this a credible story”. Neeson reached into his own past talked about an experience and the furore broke.

    A priest friend advised me, never criticise others publicly for a sin to which you cannot relate in some way. I suspect Neeson was simply trying to contextualise the sin he had portrayed.

  8. What struck me was that a lot of people, magnified by the media, are set against Neeson being able to be forgiven. There is no way back in their eyes. Whether or not his repentance is real makes no difference to them.

    That’s its own form of bigotry.

    Isn’t it dangerous to make too certain or detailed a diagnosis on the basis of this interview?

Leave a comment