“The Drum Major Instinct”
A paraphrase of a sermon by the same name by The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Andrew Philip Long, preaching
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 21, 2018
I did not write the sermon you are about to hear. It is a sermon by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one that he preached to his congregation in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 4, 1968. As I spent time this week studying this morning’s scripture lessons, I was reminded of this sermon, and in reading King’s words that are almost 51 years old, it became very clear to me that his words are still relevant and compelling today. So, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before…I’m going to preach someone else’s sermon. Dr. King preached on that day in 1968 to a congregation that was living in an unprecedented time of social, political, and religious upheaval, similar to these days we are living. And yet, because God is so very good, there was good news for the faithful then and there is good news for us today. Let’s listen to what God is saying. Let us pray…O God, may these simple words of your faithful and wise servant, because light for us today by the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.
"The setting is clear. James and John are making a specific request of the master. They had dreamed, as most of the Hebrews dreamed, of a coming king of Israel who would set Jerusalem free and establish his righteous rule over the whole world. They thought of Jesus as this kind of king. James and John were thinking of that day when Jesus would reign supreme when they asked to sit on the right hand and on the left hand of Jesus’ throne.
Now very quickly, we would automatically condemn James and John, and we would say they were selfish. Why would they make such a selfish request? But before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves. We will discover that we too have those same basic desires to be first. Of course, the other disciples got mad with James and John, and you could understand why, but we must understand that we have some of the same James and John qualities. There is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s kind of a drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. It is something that runs the whole gamut of life.
We all want to be important, to surpass others,, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse. Sigmund Freud used to contend that sex was the dominant impulse, but Adler came with a new argument saying that this quest for recognition, this desire for attention, this desire for distinction is the basic impulse of life, the basic drive of human life. We begin early asking life to put us first. Our first cry as a baby was a bid for attention. Children constantly ask life to grant them first place. Now as adults, we still have it, and we really never get by it. We like to do something good. We like to be praised. If you don’t believe that, you just go on living life, and you will discover very soon that you like to be praised. Everybody likes it, as a matter of fact. Somehow this warm flow we feel when we are praised or when our name is in print is something of the vitamin A to our ego. Nobody is unhappy when they are praised, even if they know they don’t deserve it and even if they don’t believe it. The only unhappy people about praise is when that praise is going too much toward somebody else. Everybody likes to be praised because of this real drum major instinct.
The presence of this instinct is why so many people are “joiners.” There are people who join everything. It is really just a quest for attention and recognition and importance. Some groups feed this by giving the joiners titles they otherwise would never be able to hold. It is also why we are so taken by advertisers. These men and women of verbal persuasion have a way of saying things that kind of gets you into buying. In order to make your neighbors envious, they say, you must drive this type of car. If you want to be a person of distinction, they say, you must drink this drink. In order to be more lovely to love, they say, you must wear this kind of lipstick or perfume. Before you know it, the drum major instinct has you joining everything, and doing none of it well, and buying everything, with nothing making you happy.
I got a letter the other day about a new magazine coming out. I opened the letter and it said, “Dear Dr. King: As you know, you are on many mailing lists. You are categorized as highly intelligent, progressive, a lover of the arts and the sciences, and I know you will want to read what we have to say.” Of course I do. After you said all of that and explained me so exactly, of course I want to read your new magazine.
But seriously, the drum major instinct is real and it goes through life and causes terrible things to happen. Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? Or houses they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? This is the instinct taking over, and these people live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses. They got to get this coat because this coat is a little better and a little better looking than Mary’s coat. I got to drive this car because it’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car. I know a man who used to live in a $35,000 house. And then other people started building $35,000 houses, so he built a $75,000 house. And then somebody else built a $75,000 house, so he built a house that cost him $100,000. And I don’t know where he’s going to end up if he’s going to live his life trying to keep up with and outdo everyone else, but it sure won’t be in a house.
I want to move now to how the drum major instinct can become destructive, because it can be. If this is not harnessed, it becomes very dangerous and pernicious, causing one’s personality to be distorted. If it is not harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem. It will cause you to boast, because if no one is praising you, you’ll just have to do it yourself. It will cause you to lie about who you know because important people know important people. It will cause you to grab attention wherever it can be found. Criminologists tell us that most criminals commit crimes not because they are poor or unstable—they do it because they want, need the attention. And worst of all, the drum major instinct if not harnessed will cause you to push others down in order to push yourself up. This is James and John; they wanted to push others down in order to push themselves up.
But that isn’t what Jesus did, and it wasn’t what he taught. He said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But then he reordered priorities. He said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It is a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That it what I want you to do.”
Jesus transformed the situation by giving a new definition to greatness. If you want to be important, wonderful! If you want to be recognized, wonderful! If you want to be great, wonderful! But recognize that the one who is greatest among you shall be your servant. Recognize that you must earn greatness. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. The right hand and the left are not Jesus’ to give away—they belong to those who are prepared.
I know a man—and I just want to talk about him a minute, and maybe you will discover who I’m talking about. He just went about serving. He was born in an obscure village. The child of a poor peasant woman. Then he grew up in still another obscure village, where he worked as a carpenter until he was thirty years old. Then for three years, he just got on his feet, and he was an itinerant preacher. He went about doing some things. He didn’t have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness. He had no credentials but himself.
He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator. He practiced civil disobedience; he overturned tables. He was turned over to his enemies and went through a mock trial. The irony of it all is that his friends turned him over. While he was dying, the people who killed him gambled for his clothing, the only possession he had in the world. When he was dead he was buried in a borrowed tomb, through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen centuries—somebody tell me I did the math right—nineteen centuries have come and gone and today he stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that even reigned put together have not affected the life of men and women as much as that one solitary life. His name is a familiar one. He’s the King of kings. He the Lord of lord. In him there is no east or west. In him there is no north and south, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide world. He didn’t have anything. He just went around serving and doing good.
Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator, that something that we call death. We all think about it. James and John thought about it. Every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. I don’t think about it in a morbid sense. Every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning. If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. If you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for someone to say that day that I tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be on the Jesus side of the war question.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were imprisoned.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
When you meet your day, maybe somebody will say that same for you.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. Say I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
if I can cheer somebody with a word or son,
if I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
if I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
if I can spread the message as the master taught,
then my living will not be in vain.
Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side. Not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world. Amen."