I like to look for less familiar text for Martin Luther King’s birthday. Unfortunately, soundbites from his I Have a Dream speech, for instance, have been so torn from its context as to make it unrecognizable.
A Knock at Midnight (found here [PDF]) was delivered on 14 September 1958. It has some Cold War references that I removed, not because there aren’t modern day equivalents, but for clarity, and an attempt at brevity. The text was based on Luke 11:5-6, RSV: “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him”? It’s all MLK until the end.
Although this parable is concerned with the power of persistent prayer, it may also serve as a basis for our thought concerning many contemporary problems and the role of the church in grappling with them. It is midnight in the parable; it is also midnight in our world, and the darkness is so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn…
Midnight is the hour when men desperately seek to obey the eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not get caught.” According to the ethic of midnight, the cardinal sin is to be caught and the cardinal virtue is to get by. It is all right to lie, but one must lie with real finesse. It is all right to steal, if one is so dignified that, if caught, the charge becomes embezzlement, not robbery. It is permissible even to hate, if one so dresses his hating in the garments of love that hating appears to be loving. The Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest has been substituted by a philosophy of the survival of the slickest. This mentality has brought a tragic breakdown of moral standards, and the midnight of moral degeneration deepens…
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…
In the terrible midnight of war men have knocked on the door of the church to ask for the bread of peace, but the church has often disappointed them. What more pathetically reveals the irrelevancy of the church in present-day world affairs than its witness regarding war? In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackeys of the state, sprinkling holy water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.
And those who have gone to the church to seek the bread of economic justice have been left in the frustrating midnight of economic privation. In many instances the church has so aligned itself with the privileged classes and so defended the status quo that it has been unwilling to answer the knock at midnight. The Greek Church in Russia allied itself with the status quo and became so inextricably bound to the despotic czarist regime that it became impossible to be rid of the corrupt political and social system without being rid of the church. Such is the fate of every ecclesiastical organization that allies itself with things-as-they-are.
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. Men far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travelers at midnight.
Midnight is a confusing hour when it is difficult to be faithful. The most inspiring word that the church must speak is that no midnight long remains. The weary traveler by midnight who asks for bread is really seeking the dawn. Our eternal message of hope is that dawn will come…
Obviously, this sermon is about faith – there’s a great story about the Montgomery bus boycott near the end – but it’s also about what the role of the church should, and should NOT be in the greater society. Just as the Greek Orthodox’s church in czarist Russia became too tied in the mind with the government as to be ineffectual as a change agent, so too it is with the modern western church.
The church ought not be in a role to be a cheerleader for government when it wages war, ignores and oppresses the poor, accepts injustice, and looks the other way when inequality takes place. I can’t help but wonder that the increasing amount of agnosticism and atheism in this world is a DIRECT result the church’s failure to follow its own mission statement, which, I will suggest, is the paragraph italicized above, even while the church wrings its hands over the increasing secularism of the society. Perhaps the church is merely reaping what has inadvertently sown. Perhaps, in the United States, greater separation of church and state would be good for the soul of the church.
3 thoughts on “Knocking at Midnight: Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Thank you Roger for making me aware of this sermon, which I intend to study carefully when I have the time. I found this easier to deal with text of the sermon published in 1963:
That’s true from the whole speech only the “I had a dream” everybody knows. And his dream has still not become completely true !
The church has nothing to do with politics. In Europe nobody cares about the church, and our political leaders believe what they want. I don’t even know if they are religious or not. I remember Angela Merkel she refused to swear on the bible because she is not religious at all. I have no clue if the Belgian government members are religious. Only the Kings and Queens of the countries (except Holland) are going officially to church.
I have read a lot of King’s work but never this one. This is exceptional. The link to the complete sermon seems incorrect, however.
Here’s the full one: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/a_knock_at_midnight/ Very complex and nuanced compared to “I Have a Dream.”