What do Liam Neeson and Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, have in common? They are both being punished and reviled for actions committed decades ago. They are not the only ones. The #MeToo movement seeks to pillory men not just for very serious sexual misbehaviour but also for trivial misdemeanors of decades ago. Meanwhile, there is an outcry about employers having access to irrelevant and minor convictions dating back to teenage years.
The message behind all these controversies is that society never forgives, forgets and wipes the slate clean. One can live nothing down. It is the inevitable product of the decline of Christianity, with social media now unchaining a culture of judgment and condemnation.
Nobody seems willing to stand up to it. Liam Neeson has had the premiere of his latest film cancelled, along with his television appearances, and Ralph Northam faces powerful calls for his resignation. One statement of the latter says it all: “This behaviour is not in keeping with who I am today.” St Paul said much the same in his Epistles.
Let us look at these examples more closely. Liam Neeson confesses that more than 40 years ago he was so outraged by the rape of a close friend by a black man that he went out with a cosh in his pocket, hoping he would be aggressively accosted by a black man and thereby justified in attacking him violently. Apparently he did this several times and then realised it was wrong and ceased without once having been provoked as he had sought.
So he did not hurt anybody and indeed had not set out to attack anyone unprovoked. He repented and turned from his behaviour. Yet 40 years later the modern-day equivalent of the Pharisees who judged their fellow human beings so harshly in 1st-century Jerusalem, indulge in such a revenge fest that, quite regardless of all he has been and done since, Neeson is now a pariah.
As for Northam, his 1984 school yearbook featured a man who had blacked up and another dressed in Ku Klux Klan gear (he is presumed to be one of them). Ugh! But it was 35 years ago, and why should anyone assume that he has not changed with maturity and experience, as the overwhelming majority do? Why is his apology for conduct when he was young dismissed out of hand? At what stage are people allowed to have outgrown and atoned for past views or actions?
Some people are hounded over more trivial matters. No decent person is going to argue that serious sexual assault should ever be overlooked, but when people complain that someone made an inappropriate comment years ago when drunk or committed some similarly trivial act, then the consequences can be disproportionate. Men of impeccable standing with wives and children can be hounded and humiliated or even lose their positions, as happened to one British cabinet minister upon the complaint of another. Children, children!
This passion for vengeance is a direct product of mass departure from the teachings of Christ with their emphasis on repentance, forgiveness and the danger of judging others. The proof of that lies in the disgraced 1960s minister John Profumo, who at a time when Christianity was still widespread and, above all, understood in this country, was allowed to redeem himself through charity work so completely that he was later seated next to the Queen at a formal banquet.
When the Dutch woman Corrie ten Boom shook hands with the guard who had tortured her in Ravensbrück concentration camp, the public reaction was of admiration. Fast forward several decades and the reaction to Eva Kor, a Jewish lady, forgiving 94-year-old Oskar Gröning, a bookkeeper at Auschwitz who had no direct role in the atrocities, was one of loud disbelief. Forgiveness is now regarded as odd and when one argues for it, the response is one of incomprehension.
Yet remove the individual and substitute an entire country and the reaction is quite different: we admire the peacemakers. People expect the Protestant Northern Irish to forgive and forget what the IRA did and the republicans to do likewise with the RUC. They yearned for Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to shake hands. Mandela became an icon. Sadat and Begin won a Nobel peace prize.
Why, I wonder, is it that those who cannot forgive something relatively minor nor understand why others willingly do, can in the same breath applaud similar action as long as it is carried out by nations on a grand scale?
It is a curious conundrum but probably the answer lies in the perception of peace as a “good thing”, without the understanding that peace between individuals and peace towards those who offend us is exactly the same process on a smaller scale, and that same lack of understanding fails to recognise that a social war against an individual for deeds long since repented is only war on a different scale.
Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and former prisons minister
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