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Excerpt from “A Knock at Midnight” by Martin Luther King Jr.
When the man in the parable knocked on his friend’s door and asked for the three loaves of bread, he received the impatient retort, "Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything." How often have men experienced a similar disappointment when at midnight they knock on the door of the church. Millions of Africans, patiently knocking on the door of the Christian church where they seek the bread of social justice, have either been altogether ignored or told to wait until later, which almost always means never. Millions of American Negroes, starving for the want of the bread of freedom, have knocked again and again on the door of so-called white churches, but they have usually been greeted by a cold indifference or a blatant hypocrisy. Even the white religious leaders, who have a heartfelt desire to open the door and provide the bread, are often more cautious than courageous and more prone to follow the expedient than the ethical path. One of the shameful tragedies of history is that the very institution which should remove man from the midnight of racial segregation participates in creating and perpetuating the midnight.
On the other side of the flimsy storm door stood a disheveled old man. As I backed away, he yelled at me again:
Get off my property!
I willingly complied, beating a hasty retreat down the overgrown path, and out to the street.
I don’t remember exactly what town I was in – I want to say it was Fitchburg or Leominster – all I know is that it was early in the day, and I was supposed to hit several more blocks before the area I was assigned to canvass was covered.
But I was ready to give up than and there.
It was the summer of 1986 and I was 19 years old.
I’ve always been reticent to intrude on people’s privacy.
To me, a closed door has always been a forbidding statement – a state of affairs that I have never wanted to alter – especially if I didn’t know who was on the other side.
So I don’t know why I signed up to work for MASSPIRG that summer.
Its true that I actually did believe that it was important to inform people about the toxic waste that was being illegally dumped in the state.
It’s also true that I needed to make money for the upcoming school year, and this was the only job I’d been able to get.
But none of that mattered to me know, as I sat on the curb, fighting to regain my composure.
As far as I knew, the man had not had a gun.
As far as I knew, the man did not intend to hurt me.
But I was scared.
My heart beat wildly. My breath was staggered.
I remembered the time I was mugged on the street in New York, and the few times when, as a boy, I was beaten up in the schoolyard.
The mere threat of violence can, in an instant, undermine human civilization itself.
This is why we freeze when someone pulls a gun.
When a gun appears, civilization disappears.
All of the reassurances that we use to prop up our false sense of security – the airbags and antilock brakes and 911 and fire escapes and workplace sensitivity training and anti-bullying programs and homeland security and life guards and metal detectors and the TSA with their wandy things, and the way seat cushions turn into a flotation devices in the unlikely event of a water landing – everything… all of it …
is called a lie.
It all vanishes the instant a gun appears.
The threat of violence in its purest form, the gun is not only a threat to the person it is pointed at. It also reveals, as nothing else does, the futility and hypocrisy of human society –
We’ve been telling ourselves that everything is fine – that the insurance policy is paid up, that the EMT’s are well-trained, and that our hospitals are top notch. But we have secretly suspected that something may not be quite right.
And when a gun appears, we are stricken with flash of certainty – everything that society has done to create the illusion of safety – all of it, it turns out, is utterly moot.
Violence strips everything away.
It turns civilization into wilderness.
Culture into chaos.
Life into death.
Noon into midnight.
When I looked at the lectionary reading for this morning, I immediately recognized it as the text that Martin Luther King Jr. used for his famous “A Knock at Midnight” sermon.
Dr. King pointed out that Christ chiefly intended the parable in question to be an illustration of both the efficacy of prayer and the corresponding willingness of God to attend to the concerns we bring.
However, Dr. King did not develop this theme in his sermon.
Instead Dr. King focused his attention on the symbolism of midnight. He characterized his own historical moment – the 1960’s – as a kind of midnight – “the midnight of racial segregation.”
Of the two characters in the parable, he likened the person knocking to the “…millions of American Negroes, starving for the want of the bread of freedom.”
As for the exasperated the friend inside the house, his ineffectual dissembling is, quite predictably, likened to “the white religious leaders” who are “more cautious than courageous and more prone to follow the expedient than the ethical path.”
One of the shameful tragedies of history, Dr. King said, is that the very institution which should remove man from the midnight of racial segregation participates in creating and perpetuating the midnight.
When Dr. King spoke of the “midnight of racial segregation” he was not being hypothetical or melodramatic.
He was talking about the day to day life of Black Americans,
Tired, worn down, and forced to the indignity of the back of the bus.
Denied the ability to register to vote,
Dragged out in the middle of the night and lynched.
There is nothing hypothetical about a black man hanging from a tree.
When Dr. King spoke of the “fierce urgency of now,” the force of his moral imperative could not be questioned.
And yet, though his was a time of great upheaval and difficulty, there is, at least, one way in which we, in our time, feel a kind of nostalgia for those days.
What I mean is, we sometimes envy times of upheaval as times when the protagonists at least had the benefit of moral clarity.
If, for example, we were gentiles living in Warsaw in 1939 — would we have sheltered a Jewish family?
We’d like to think we would.
The moral imperative to do so, at least, would be perfectly clear.
If we were white Christians in the United States in March 1965, would we have stood in solidarity with Dr. King and crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge to face the tear gas and nightsticks that met them on the otherside?
We’d like to think we would.
The moral imperative to do so, at least, would be perfectly clear.
The Jim Crow south
Cambodia under Pol Pot.
Chile under Pinochet.
Uganda under Amin.
Human history is replete with spiritual midnights.
Moments when the darkness is utterly profound.
During a Spiritual midnight, the ethical ambiguities that, at all other times, challenge our moral discernment, fall away.
At such times the moral choice is quite clear.
And yet that clear moral choice is also the choice that is fraught with terrible danger.
When I consulted the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary about this morning’s verse, I read the following:
The parable assumes the setting of a Galilean village. Houses were simple structures of one or two rooms. Women baked bread in ovens on common courtyards, and so they would know who might have bread left at the end of the day. Hospitality was such a serious duty that any failure to provide for a guest would bring shame on a host.
This was helpful.
I imagined the small houses. The common courtyard. The scarcity of food. The sudden arrival, after dark, of a guest. In this setting, I could easily imagine that hospitality was a matter of extraordinary importance. At times when we are out after dark, and we are tired and hungry – being fed – is a matter of real concern. To show hospitality would be an ethic that would engender the expectation that hospitality would be shown in return if one ever found oneself hungry and alone after dark.
But things look different today, don’t they?
If a friend showed up unexpected at my door and I had nothing to offer, would I wake my neighbor to ask for some bread?
Would you do that?
I like my neighbor.
She is a nice person – a little wacky, but who isn’t?
I have no doubt that if I woke her in the middle of the night and asked her for bread, she would be pretty confused, and she would probably think I’d lost my mind, but eventually, she’d probably give me some bread.
But I would not wake my neighbor in order to get bread for my guest.
Showing hospitality to my unexpected midnight guest is just not that important to me.
It’s not a matter of ultimate concern.
What would I wake my neighbor for?
This could be a kind of test — the “wake the neighbors test?”
Using this test, we could discern the relative urgency of something. If it is important enough to wake your neighbor, than it must be a very urgent indeed.
Let me see.
I think I would wake my neighbor if I sensed that she was in danger.
If I happened to be looking out my window at midnight and spied an angry mob of villagers approaching her house with firebrands and pitchforks, I’d head over and wake her up.
That would pass my “wake the neighbors test.”
And if one of my loved ones was at risk and all the phones in my house were dead, and the only way to call 911 would be to go and wake her up – yes, in that case, I would wake my neighbor in a heartbeat.
No hesitation there!
If you want to come by my place, I’d recommend not coming at midnight – but if you have to come at midnight, I understand.
Just don’t expect me to go wake my neighbor to get some bread.
I do not consider hospitality a matter of ultimate concern.
But if you are under threat of imminent physical danger, and, for some reason, the only way I can help you is by waking my neighbor, I’ll do that for you.
I do consider the prevention of physical harma matter of ultimate concern.
It reminds me of that moment, back on 1986, when I was sitting on the curb trying to regain my composure – trying, rather unsuccessfully, to reassure myself that human civilization, in all its intricate pageantry, could be depended upon to protect me.
My inclination – and I think it is a spiritual inclination – is to value as most important of all – those actions that in some way serve love.
Love that wraps us in community.
That turns wilderness to civilization.
Chaos to Culture.
Death to life.
Midnight to daybreak.
In the summer of 2016, it is not appropriate, I think, to feel nostalgic for a time when the moral choices that we faced were clear.
Nostalgia in not appropriate, because we are in just such moment now – a spiritual midnight in which the moral imperative that faces us is clear.
The sweltering summer of 2016 is a summer of pervasive, unrelenting, and senseless violence.
We are looking down the barrel of an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon, and we are dying, horrific, random deaths.
Ours is a peculiar spiritual midnight.
We are not taken away in the middle of the night by secret police.
We are not being forced into a ghetto or exiled to a Gulag.
We are not being sent to re-education camps or disappeared to killing fields.
We are not oppressed by a dictator.
Indeed our leader is pleading to save us!
Instead, in our peculiar spiritual midnight, we are held hostage by an illusive presence.
The illusive person’s name is “anyone.”
Because “anyone” can, without difficulty, obtain a weapon of war.
We are in the spiritual midnight of AR-15.
The moral choice is clear.
Allow me to make one final point regarding the parable that we have been considering this morning.
The parable involves a circle of friends.
A friend arrives at the house of a friend. The host friend has no food to offer his guest friend, so he goes to ask for help from another friend who has bread. The friend who has bread is briefly unhappy with the host friend, but eventually obliges and gives bread which the host friend gives to the guest friend.
The parable is telling us that when we find ourselves facing a matter of ultimate concern, it is appropriate to seek help.
It is appropriate, and necessary, to seek the help of the community.
And it is appropriate, and necessary, to seek the help of God – our ultimate concern.
At this moment in the life of or nation,
We could allow cynicism, fear and division to control our political discourse.
We could blame our economic and social difficulties on the Mexicans and the Muslims.
We could allow powerful lobbying groups to continue to control the gun control debate.
We could accept, as normal, the landmarks of our spiritual midnight –
we could turn to each other and join together to form a circle of friends –
A circle of friends dedicated to ultimate concerns.
That is what church is.
That is what church can be.
So wake the neighbors!
Hear the knock at midnight.
It knocks for thee. Amen.