On the viral video front, last week’s release of the youtube video “I Killed A Man” took the Internet by storm, though it was bested in views by a wacky Norwegian dance epic about foxes. And while wacky dancing animal videos come and go, this video has haunted me since I first saw it. It is likely the most sobering and consequential video to hit the web in a long time, and it certainly merits some consideration:

The video itself is fairly self-explanatory. Matthew Cordle, an Ohioan at age 22, released a full confession online admitting to killing a man when he drove drunk into oncoming highway traffic–a confession which will likely land him between 2 and 8.5 years in prison, if not more depending on the charges. The video was released in conjunction with “Because I Said I Would,”an online organization dedicated to helping people keep their promises (it’s in the same vein as PostSecret, if you’re familiar with that website).

There’s no way to do the material justice in a blogpost, but I nevertheless thought I’d jot down a few things that have stayed with me:

  • True Repentance? A decent news organization is required by journalistic ethics to report on the second half of the story, which in this case is the question of whether or not Cordle is sincere in his confession.  The daughter of the man Cordle killed has wondered publicly whether Cordle was trying to get a lighter sentence by coming out with the video. News organizations are reporting that Cordle’s legal options were thin–another piece of evidence corroborating the theory that the video is a hail-mary play for judicial mercy. The church world is really no stranger to this question–how can you tell if someone truly repents? For the most part, when the church has focused too much on this question, things tend to go awry (flagellant monks, the Inquisition, and some darker trends in Puritanism are all examples of this playing out, to say nothing of the failure of prominent modern evangelical church leaders, and the morbid introspection of their followers). From a legal and ethical standpoint, I hope that this “hermeneutic of suspicion” doesn’t cloud the upcoming trial, and from a spiritual standpoint, I hope it doesn’t dilute the real power this public confession can have.
  • Owning Up. In some ways, Cordle’s confession is something of a model of Christian repentance. Although there is understandably some suspicion, there is also a real sense of owning up. “I’m handing the prosecution everything they need,” says Cordle, “and I take full responsibility for my actions.” There’s even some self awareness to Cordle’s alcohol abuse–“I drink to get out of my head for a few hours, ” he says (and seems to mean it). The pride that can come with such public displays of contrition simply isn’t here–Cordle doesn’t say “I’m doing the right thing” or “I’m manning up”–implying that this is some sort of good work to counter-balance his sin. His motivation, it seems, is to keep others from driving while intoxicated, which, while perhaps noble, sounds more like a desperate plea from a guilt-ridden man than a righteous act of personal atonement (or at least the video does not feature those elements of Cordle’s personality, which could certainly be there).
  • 00.159.185_PS1Promise Keeping. The site sponsoring Cordle’s video is worth noting too–it’s an organization dedicated to helping people keep their promises. Founder Alex Sheen started the org in memory of his father who apparently always kept his promises. I remember giving my kid sister a trip to the local Discovery Zone Playplace as a birthday present many years ago, only to keep postponing the trip till Discovery Zone filed for bankruptcy in 1996. After 17 years, still harboring the shame of not honoring my promise to my kid sister, I sympathize with Sheen’s vision of accountability in promise keeping (of course, I fully recognize that these situations are not remotely the same). But it’s very interesting that a grassroots, non-religious Internet startup has identified broken promises as a universal point of human connection, and though it’s ancillary to the video itself, it might be good to file that one away for the next time you need to find compassion for a fellow broken person.
  • Abreaction. How interesting that this piece goes viral with over one million viewers in a single week. I’m no scholar in video virality, but I do think that abreaction is a major piece of why this video connects so well to viewers. To recap, abreaction is the sort of reaction you get when you cry at a movie or relive an emotional experience (see the conversion of Anton Ego in Ratatouille) that provides an emotional catharsis beyond the control of one’s will (this is why you cried at the end of Toy Story 3). A different part of the mind is touched by this video, especially when the whole story is laid out before the viewer. Perhaps it’s empathy with a sad, depressed 22 year old escaping into alcohol to get out of his head for a while, perhaps it’s the skeevy lawyers trying to get the blood test thrown out, or perhaps it’s the looming reality of jail and a careless life–but I find myself sympathizing with Cordle in the midst of his guilt. It’s worth noting that this is simply not a rational process–it hits you in the gut in a way that drunk driving PSAs and MADD sponsored high school classes aren’t always able to do. (A question worth asking, however, is would I remember this “hit to the gut” were I three sheets to the wind?).
  • Mercy. While writing this piece, I reflected on my own traditions basic confession found in the Book of Common Prayer. The first half of the confession and this video are remarkably similar:  “I have followed too much the devices and desires of my own heart” is the core of the statement “I was trying to have a good time and I lost control. Sometimes I drink because I have depression,” and “I don’t like the person I become when I drink–I’ve ruined relationships in the past, I start fights, I become a person people don’t like being around.”  But the difference between a Christian confession and Cordle’s is that Christians conclude their prayer begging for mercy: “Have mercy on us, most Merciful Father. Spare those who are penitent, restore those who confess their faults” vs. “I beg you [viewer], please don’t drink and drive.”  One is a voice of hope, the other is a voice of regret. I sincerely hope Cordle has someone in his world that can point him to a merciful God whose Son is the friend of sinners. But for the grace of God, there I would also be.

Cordle has turned himself in and was indicted on Monday for his charges. I’m interested to see how the rest of this story plays out–perhaps I was wrong about his character or the circumstance surrounding his confession. Musician Derek Webb once quipped that the best thing for a person would be to have their sins broadcast on the 5:00 news. If he’s right, than perhaps Cordle is on his way to getting the help he needs by finding the higher power of mercy at the end of his rope.