My mentor and friend, Walker Knight, has died. It wasn’t a surprise – his health has been poor for several years. For him and his family, it is likely merciful.
Acknowledging as much, though, doesn’t ease what appears to the living as a certain dimming of the light.
Having said that, it is significant that Walker breathed his last on the First Sunday in Advent.
Among my earliest childhood memories is an especially vivid one on a Christmas Eve. I was so eager for Christmas morning to arrive that it was nigh impossible to sleep.
Even in our hardscrabble household, I knew some toys would be under the Christmas tree.
Sometime in the night, I pretended going to the bathroom, pausing to peer into the dark living room to see if I could make out what was there.
It was a “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” episode, with something like “visions of sugar-plums” dancing in my head.
I didn’t know then that sugar plums had nothing to do with fruit. They are small sugar balls. Sugar intake always escalates at Christmas. My mama’s fudge was an annual extravagance.
Walker knew the taste of Advent wasn’t sweet, that the Gospels’ birth narratives are not candy-coated. Jesus was born in the context of state-sponsored terrorism.
Mary’s famous “Magnificat” (banned for periods under U.S.-supported military dictators in Chile, Argentina and Guatemala) was ripe with piety but culminated in politically seditious language, a full-throated announcement of God’s design to humble the powerful and raise the refuse.
Mary and Joseph and their swaddling-wrapped baby were targets. Walker knew there was an ideological struggle going on in Scripture’s Christmas story.
All the honorific terms ascribed to Jesus – Lord, Savior, Prince of Peace – were titles assigned by Rome’s governing elite to Caesar.
A dispute over lordship was brewing. Advent’s backdrop is danger, political intrigue and insurrectionary fervor.
The occasion that drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was Caesar’s census, whose results were used to establish tax impositions. It was a source of Palestinian hatred and riotous outbreaks.
About the time Jesus was born, some 2,000 of his fellow Galileans were crucified for their political insurgency in a single day in Sepphoris, an hour’s walk from Nazareth, by order of Quintilus Varus, the Roman military commander. That infamy surely had a formative effect on Jesus.
After being alerted by the magi’s Roman customs declaration form of their search for a predicted new king of Israel, Herod ordered the preemptive murder of all male infants in the region around Bethlehem, just after Mary and Joseph’s refugee flight through the desert to Egypt.
Most Protestants do not observe the Feast of the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28, so the massacre it attests is largely hidden from contemporary view by the mounds of scrap gift-wrapping, strands of ribbon and stacks of cheery Christmas cards destined for recycling.
Walker’s 1969 book, “The Struggle for Integrity,” is the reason my wife and I moved to Atlanta after finishing seminary in New York City.
We had no jobs waiting; we just wanted to be part of Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, whose pastoral leadership (clergy and lay) refused to move to the suburbs when the neighborhood degentrified. It was a risk-your-assets moment, resulting in substantial membership loss.
The refusal to comply with Jim Crow almost killed the church, but then came Epiphany’s visionary renewal. Clarity is often reserved for those with their backs against the wall.
Over the ensuing years, Walker’s insightful voice helped lead the congregation through a longer series of dramatic decisions about its ever-deepening grasp of its mission as a countersign to larger cultural values. But not without renewed conflicts.
Walker knew that faith is often clarified not in the absence of conflict but within and through it.
In a long prose poem printed in the December 1972 issue of Home Missions Magazine, which he edited, Walker dwelled at length on the risk of Advent and the fact that peacemaking entailed an active, even provocative engagement – whose practice is not for the faint of heart.
“Peace plans its strategy and encircles the enemy. / Peace marshals its forces and storms the gates. / Peace gathers its weapons and pierces the defense. / Peace, like war, is waged. / But Christ has turned it all around: / the weapons of peace are love, joy, goodness, longsuffering; / the arms of peace are justice, truth, patience, prayer; / the strategy of peace brings safety, welfare, happiness; / the forces of peace are the sons and daughters of God.”
Seven years later, then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter quoted some of those lines in his speech marking the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which he worked so hard to accomplish.
As the author of Hebrews aptly says it, following an extended summary of courageous faith figures, “For time would fail me to tell” the whole story of Walker Knight – not to mention his dearly beloved wife, Nell.
The Knight household practiced “simple living” long before that was a thing. They helped guide the church in giving full welcome to African Americans, to refugees, to the queer community, to speaking out – and enduring the resulting fallout – on a variety of justice, peace and human rights commitments.
(The church even voted to put the title to its building up as bail bond when its custodian suffered a brush with the law.)
My wife, Nancy, and I were jointly ordained by this community, long before female ministers were considered legitimate.
When Seeds magazine was formed, focused on mobilizing faith communities to address the scourge of world hunger, we didn’t know a pica ruler from a peacock.
Walker was our devoted teacher in the arts of editing and layout and design, vital consultant to our organizing work and experienced tutor in articulating the theological vision undergirding our labors.
When I opened the Baptist Peace Fellowship office at Oakhurst, Walker allowed me to interrupt him at any time with questions and let me use the typesetting equipment he used for the final chapter of his professional career – writing, editing and publishing an independent news journal to address the fallout of our denomination’s abduction by fundamentalist racketeers and rallying the plans and hopes and dreams of the displaced remnant.
Walker’s courage in composing poetry later inspired me to attempt the same. One I’m remembering, “Portal of Praise: Praise as Presage to Advent’s Treason,” includes these lines.
“The Manger’s trailhead opens at / the portal of praise and genuflecting / thanks. Not because heaven arises to / piety’s incense. But because Advent’s / brush with mortal flesh is a perilous journey, / fraught with insurrection’s threat, / pregnancy’s scandal, birthed from / stabled bed, and Herod’s foam and fury. / The innocents take it in the chops every / time. Yet Advent threatens treason to / every Herod-hearted arrangement. … / Only praise can / leverage the earth’s maddening orbit back / to its Rightful Tender. No longer shall / the beggarly be auctioned to satisfy / ravenous demand, but they shall find / refuge, deliverance, in secured / Promised Land. For the Blessed One / has vowed a ransomed release from / misery’s increase: healing the lamed, / gathering the shamed, transforming / their weeping to a torrent of praise.”
Curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action. He was the founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.