Forty years ago, Liam Neeson roamed in Black neighbourhoods across Northern Ireland looking for an innocent Black man to attack—a Black man like me.
He was in his mid-twenties at the time. He wasn’t a Hollywood star yet. He was just a young actor with minor roles in films between the late 1970s and early 1980s. And earlier this week, in an interview with The Independant, Neeson shared that at that time, a woman close to him suffered a violent sexual assault from a Black man in Northern Ireland.
Neeson confessed that the assault filled him with rage, a rage that spilled into racism and revenge. A Black stranger attacked his innocent family member, and Neeson wanted to attack innocent Black strangers. He blamed the sexual assault on the attacker’s skin colour, not his character. He hated Black people for what happened to his loved one.
So that week, Liam Neeson walked up and down in Black neighbourhoods, carrying his rage, racism, revenge, and a weapon. He held his weapon—a cosh—the entire time, hoping that, in his words, “a Black bastard” would run into him so he could kill him. Neeson confessed that he did this every day for a week.
Neeson isn’t the first White man to make innocent Black men guilty of crimes they didn’t commit. He isn’t the first White man to roam the streets looking for innocent Black men to kill. He could have become one of many White men throughout history who have taken innocent Black fathers and sons from their homes forever. Almost 5,000 Black Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and many of the victims were killed by White men who felt the rage, racism, and revenge that Liam Neeson did against Black people.
Liam Neeson’s story is difficult to read. But it was more difficult for him to confess it. Neeson’s demeanor and words throughout the interview suggest that he is deeply remorseful. He admitted that he was ashamed and horrified by his actions. The interviewer mentioned that Neeson’s voice trembled as he shared the story. And Neeson’s expressions during his interview at Good Morning America affirms that.
However, Neeson’s confession received condemning reactions from people. They labeled him a racist. They compared him to the Ku Klux Klan. They urged others to boycott his films. They petitioned movie producers to remove him from their movies. Other celebrities also shamed and mocked him.
These reactions made me think about the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant from Matthew 18:21-35. Jesus shared the parable directly after Peter’s question about forgiveness. Peter asked Jesus when is it okay for people to stop forgiving others. Jesus answered: never.
Then Jesus shared a story. He said a servant owed about twenty year’s worth of wages to a king. And because the servant couldn’t afford to pay his debt, the king ordered that the servant, his wife, his children, and all his assets should be sold to recover some of the debt. But the servant fell to his knees and begged the king for patience. He promised the king that he would pay back everything he owed him. Then the king had mercy on him. He canceled his debt. He forgave the servant.
But when the servant left the presence of the king, he found a fellow servant who owed him a day’s worth of wages. He immediately seized the other servant and choked him. He demanded the other servant to pay back everything. The other servant begged him for patience. The other servant promised him that he would pay back everything owed to him. But he refused. Instead, he forced the other servant into prison, demanding to keep him there until he paid his debt.
When the king heard about this, he summoned the original servant to him, and he rebuked his hypocritical and unforgiving heart. The king said to him: “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:21-35) So the king forced the servant into prison, demanding to keep him there until he paid his debt.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is about Jesus, me, you, and Liam Neeson. Jesus is the king, I am the servant. Jesus is my king, I am his servant. I am a sinner. I have sinned against Jesus all my life. The wages of my sins is death and hell. But Jesus had mercy on me. He died on the cross for me. I begged him for mercy and he forgave me. He covered my sins with his blood and love. And that’s why I’m willing to cover Liam Neeson’s sins with love.
Liam Neeson is my fellow sinner. I may look like the kind of person he wanted to kill 40 years ago, but he doesn’t owe me anything. He doesn’t owe me an apology. He didn’t sin against me personally. He probably didn’t sin against you either. He sinned against God. However, if you believe my skin colour somehow makes me a victim of Neeson’s racist behaviour from 40 years ago, that still doesn’t make his sins against people who look like me worse than my sins against God.
I owe Jesus more than anyone could ever owe me. I have done worse to Jesus more than Liam Neeson has ever done to people who look like me. Therefore, just as Jesus covered my sins with his blood, I should cover Liam Neeson’s sins with love. And that’s why I love Neeson’s deep remorse today more than I hate his deep racism from years ago.
And if you’re an unforgiving person today, you’re a bigger problem than Liam Neeson’s racism from several decades ago.