“Can I Ever Be Forgiven?” On the Radical Unity of Sinners

“If I Take Everything Good in My Life and Burn It to the Ground, Where Can I Turn?”

David Clay / 12.1.20

I live in a northern suburb of St. Louis, MO, a city which has been the per-capita homicide capital of the USA for the last several years. In 2020, the city stands a good chance of breaking its previous record, set in 1993 when its population was larger by about 80,000 people. In the ’90s, rival gangs peddling crack committed most of the murders, but nowadays, in the words of one St. Louis police officer, “everybody is killing everybody.” 

It’s an enormous and apparently intractable problem, one I think about fairly often but usually in abstract terms (e.g., economics, education). That’s largely because the human cost, to victims and even perpetrators, is simply too hard to consider for very long. This cost was, however, recently brought to my consideration by the song-selection algorithm governing my music platform of choice. 

The group was one I had heard of before only in passing: La Dispute, a spoken/shouted-word post-hardcore outfit hailing from Grand Rapids, MI. The seven-minute long track, entitled “King Park,” recounts a real drive-by shooting that took place near the eponymous park in Grand Rapids back in 2008. Such an occurrence was evidently not unusual — the narrator, voiced in spoken word format by La Dispute frontman Jordan Dreyer, struggles to remember if the most recent shooting at the park had taken place a month or a week prior. What makes this one especially tragic, though, is that the shooter missed his intended target and instead killed an uninvolved 16-year-old boy. It’s exactly the kind of thing the 5 o’clock news leads with in St. Louis, which has seen dozens of minors shot and 17 killed this year. People shake their heads, voice policy proposals of varying sorts, and murmur about moving further out into the county. 

But the narrator of the song is not satisfied with any of that. Instead, he longs to bridge the temporal, geographical, and emotional distance separating himself from this latest tragedy: “I wanna see it where I couldn’t when it happened / I wanna see it all first hand this time / I want to know what it felt like.” Something about this particular death strikes him in such a way that he doesn’t want it to be logged as another sad statistic and gradually forgotten: “I wanna write it all down so I can always remember / If you could see it up close how could you ever forget?”

Somehow gifted with the ability to transcend time and space, the narrator revisits the moment of the shooting, the ensuing chaos, the mother (left mercifully undescribed) leaning over the body of her son. He goes back in time to observe not only this boy, but also other young homicide victims in Grand Rapids, going about the business of daily life: “playing games and doing homework / All these marks of youth soon transformed coldly into stone.” Explanations of a certain sort could be offered for why this happened, and for why it keeps happening, but “there cannot be a reason, not for death / Not like this, not like this.” 

Without warning, the narrator then switches focus to the shooter himself, now hiding out in a hotel room with the gun. At 20 years of age, he’s the old man in his group; his friends refer to him as “Grandpa.” He had fled the scene after firing the shots, but not before witnesses had identified him. A few days after the shooting, someone sees him at the hotel and tips off the police. Events escalate rapidly: cops surround the hotel, arrest an accomplice, pursue the shooter back into his room where he locks the door behind him. The police, apprehensive about kicking in the door, try to talk the shooter into surrendering peacefully. He, meanwhile, is on the phone with an uncle, who “preached of hope and forgiveness, / Said, ‘There is always a chance to rectify what you’ve taken, / Make your peace in the world.’” 

Things get out of hand at this point, spiraling out of control in both the narrative and the music itself. Dreyer, now adopting the voice of the shooter, screams out the final words of the track. Screamed vocals very often feel like a way to artificially pump up the emotional intensity of a song; here, however, they are a perfect if unsettling fit for the unfolding scene. The shooter, crushed under “the burden of murder,” begs his uncle (and God): 

Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?
Can I ever be forgiven ‘cause I killed that kid?
It was an accident I swear it wasn’t meant for him!
And if I turn it on me
If I even it out
Can I still get in or will they send me to hell?
Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?

Dreyer has complained more than once that listeners tend to rip this final segment of “King Park” out of its context, such that it overshadows or even replaces the rest of the narrative. Said Dreyer in an interview with Rolling Stone

We live in a culture that digests and compresses things into memes on Tumblr. I think we got a lot of that, which is fine […] But I think you worry that these big events that by nature aren’t reducible, that are complex and nuanced, become ‘Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?’ memes.

His complaint is just. At the same time, though, one could say that Dreyer has more or less done the same thing to the event that gave rise to the song. In other words, there is a lot of missing context in “King Park.” Dreyer never mentions, for instance, that the shooter and the victim are black or impoverished. There’s no insight into the socioeconomic and political conditions that make a young man firing a gun at someone in a public park such a depressingly common event. Always below the surface of “King Park,” but never explicitly mentioned, are the tragedies that mark the lives of so many black Americans living in our inner cities. 

Explanations for these tragedies abound: generational poverty, fatherlessness, systemic racism, elitist indifference, bad schools, etc. But Dreyer doesn’t go into any of that. “King Park” offers no social commentary, has nothing to say about how the police handled the incident, and sounds no call to action. Every bit of focus is on the human pain, loss, remorse, despair.

And this, frankly, is what makes “King Park,” and particularly its conclusion, so horribly compelling. He is facing this catastrophe as a human being confronting the ultimate human problem, and in a degree of starkness few of us will ever experience. The shooter is staring down the question: “If I take everything good in my life and burn it to the ground, ruining the lives of others in the process, where can I possibly turn? Is my existence, both now and eternally, nothing more than a horrible and irrevocable mistake? What price could ever atone for this?” If I turn it on me, if I even it out …

That burning impulse to “even it out” is the link that binds me, a middle-class white suburbanite, to a black kid in inner city Grand Rapids. At this level, our differences are superficial. The most important thing about that kid is exactly the most important thing about myself: We need mercy. I’ll likely never participate in a drive-by shooting, but that is merely an accident of history. I know what’s really going on inside of me; I know what I’m capable of. He and I both need a God (other human beings just won’t cut it here) who knows the depths, and yet will still look us in the eyes and say, “You are forgiven.”

I personally don’t have a lot of fresh new proposals for fixing American inner cities, or race relations, or bad policing. Progress on any of our major social problems is likely going to be slow and painful. What I do know is that recognition and acceptance of our radical unity as sinners is pretty much the only way to avoid either patronizing or despising people in the long run. People who sincerely ask, “Can I ever be forgiven …” and who have received “yes” for an answer are people who can show each other the compassion necessary for lasting social change.

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One response to ““Can I Ever Be Forgiven?” On the Radical Unity of Sinners”

  1. Wes says:

    I was just looking for the lyrics of this song and was not expecting to read this this morning. AMAZING!!

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