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‘.)
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