The great tragedy of the drum major instinct

What we learn from MLK's final sermon in Ebenezer's pulpit

Good morning, and happy Martin Luther King Day. I hope you have a day off from work today and enjoy some rest. Pray for National Guard and reservists from around the nation called to duty this day to protect state capitols and Washington, D.C. from people who should be persuaded to stay home by their presence. Being a patriot does not include threatening harm to our nation’s brave soldiers.

Today I am reminded of a sermon that applies to today with the same force as when it was first delivered.

In what was to be his final sermon from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, nearly 53 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King presaged the acts of Christians following Donald Trump today. On February 4, 1968, King preached a message titled “The Drum Major Instinct,” using Mark 10:35-41 as his text.

King’s words in the midst of this sermon paint a nearly perfect portrait of white Christians today, who “answered the call of my president” on January 6th, and continue to believe the most abominable and easily debunked lies about the November election.

Now the presence of the drum major instinct is why so many people are "joiners." You know, there are some people who just join everything. And it's really a quest for attention and recognition and importance. And they get names that give them that impression. So you get your groups, and they become the "Grand Patron," and the little fellow who is henpecked at home needs a chance to be the "Most Worthy of the Most Worthy" of something. It is the drum major impulse and longing that runs the gamut of human life. And so we see it everywhere, this quest for recognition. And we join things, overjoin really, that we think that we will find that recognition in.

People are capable of justifying any lie, deluding ourselves to arrive at a foregone conclusion to which we cling despite all evidence to the contrary. The impulse is very strong, and even stronger when we join a cause we believe is larger than ourselves.

More from Dr. King:

And the other thing is that it causes one to engage ultimately in activities that are merely used to get attention. Criminologists tell us that some people are driven to crime because of this drum major instinct. They don't feel that they are getting enough attention through the normal channels of social behavior, and so they turn to anti-social behavior in order to get attention, in order to feel important. (Yeah) And so they get that gun, and before they know it they robbed a bank in a quest for recognition, in a quest for importance.

And then the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, (Glory to God) he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. (Amen) And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up. (Make it plain) And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct.

Christians today aren’t getting guns and robbing banks to feel important. They are gathering to try to overturn an election. They are pushing down others to push themselves, and President Trump, up. This is exactly what Donald Trump does. He harnesses the drum major instinct and focuses it on himself.

Martin Luther King offered Christ as the author, the finisher, and the reason for justice. He offered service to others, not out of selfish ambition or recognition, but out of devotion to the Lord Jesus, as life’s highest calling. The ending of King’s sermon is a poignant reminder, after King foretells his own death just months in the future.

Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, (Yes) 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.

We can learn from King’s final sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, as its current outgoing pastor, Senator-elect Raphael Warnock, stood in the pulpit Sunday and echoed King’s call for social, economic, and criminal justice.

King wasn’t so detached from the political realities of 1968 that he preached some high-minded theological exegesis. He railed against segregation, oppression and racism. He slammed the forces of economic hegemony, and the “senseless, unjust war” in Vietnam. He foreshadowed the spirit of Donald Trump and Trumpism made religion in MAGA.

But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. "I must be first." "I must be supreme." "Our nation must rule the world." (Preach it) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I'm going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

The drum major instinct, perverted to self and national supremacy, King argued, leads to the same fate as the Roman Empire. “Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” King preached. “And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening.”

We are seeing the parallels today.

Rev. Raphael Warnock, now Senator-elect Warnock, preached what may be his final sermon from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, at least as its outgoing pastor, Sunday (yesterday). Warnock preached in honor of King, and blasted economic injustice, and the pervasiveness of lies.

Warnock spoke of a "dark and difficult period" marked by the coronavirus pandemic, associated economic downturn and dangerous political rhetoric culminating in the insurrection at the Capitol earlier this month, which he described as an attack "by those who are driven by the worst impulses, stirred up by demagogues."

It’s the drum major instinct come again to roost.

"There is a sense in which the world is in flux, and when that happens there are always those demagogues who are trying to scapegoat those other people, and stirring up the worst types of stereotypes and creating all kinds of division: age-old racial and religious resentments, divisions that blur our vision," Warnock said. "While we're busy going after one another, attacking one another, the high sit increasingly high and the low sit extremely low." 

Warnock exchanged his clerical responsibilities for political ones. I pray that he inherits the clear vision of Dr. King, and does not fall for the drum major instinct to follow Democrats into bread & circuses, evil practices like eugenics in eradicating Downs Syndrome children by abortion, and critical race theory. One cannot preach against resentments, divisions, and scapegoating while agreeing that 75 million Americans wear white sheets over their heads because they voted for a demagogue.

The great tragedy of the drum major instinct, as King preached it, is that when we give in to it, fail to harness it, fail to place a bit in the mouth to restrain the tongue, it becomes a deadly poison, a raging fire. (See James 3:5-10.)

We have sparked a great inferno in our society, one that will burn our nation to the ground if left untended. Dr. King’s message doesn’t deny the power of the tongue, or the human striving for recognition and acceptance. He pleads that only God can fill those needs, and that our devotion must be to Christ alone.

Greatness comes by preparation, not by demagoguery. King’s words give us Jesus’s definition.

And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, "Now brethren, I can't give you greatness. And really, I can't make you first." This is what Jesus said to James and John. "You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared." (Amen)

On this Martin Luther King Day, can we resolve to achieve fitness, and celebrate it. Can we resolve to be prepared for what’s coming, and to meet it with meekness, strength of character, the power of truth, and the motivation of love.

God demands nothing less of Christians. I pray that we may honor Dr. King’s memory, and his devotion to God, by reaffirming our love of America, not in greatness, but in restraint.

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