The Drum Major Instinct

On February 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a powerful sermon about the greatness-seeking impulses that are the source of many types of conflict, racism, bigotry and greed – impulses which are precisely those appealed to by social institutions in order to create The Long Now we all inhabit. He also delivered the antidote. The sermon is called “The Drum Major Instinct” and was delivered to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. (h/t to occasional ET reader Pastor Don for putting this one back on my mind)

If you’re looking for something to read in a time of reflection today, this would be my selection. I have excerpted what I think are especially meaningful – and for readers of this website, relevant – sections of his sermon. Parentheticals are transcribed exclamations from the church.

Alternatively, read the whole text from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute here, or listen to the audio here.

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 kingdom on Mount Zion, and in righteousness rule the world. And they thought of Jesus as this kind of king. And they were thinking of that day when Jesus would reign supreme as this new king of Israel. And they were saying, “Now when you establish your kingdom, let one of us sit on the right hand and the other on the left hand of your 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, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire 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. And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.

And so before we condemn them, let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. 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, and Adler came with a new argument saying that this quest for recognition, this desire for attention, this desire for distinction is the basic impulse, the basic drive of human life, this drum major instinct.

And you know, we begin early to ask life to put us first. Our first cry as a baby was a bid for attention. And all through childhood the drum major impulse or instinct is a major obsession. Children ask life to grant them first place. They are a little bundle of ego. And they have innately the drum major impulse or the drum major instinct.

Now in adult life, we still have it, and we really never get by it. We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it. Now 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. And somehow this warm glow 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. (That’s right) But everybody likes to be praised because of this real drum major instinct.

But let me rush on to my conclusion, because I want you to see what Jesus was really saying. What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It’s very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, “You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?”

But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. 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 he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. (Yes) It’s 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. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”

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)

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of 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 he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.

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  1. Is there anyone left in this country who can deliver such a powerful message in such a moving way? Not only are we bereft of great thinkers, we are bereft of inspirational orators too.

  2. Don’t give up Jim - they are out there. You just have to look, and not too far. Have you read Ben & Rusty’s writings? We are already in the presence of great thinkers and writers. Look at the contributions to the pack from those who comment & encourage.
    “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your alters. I am the only one left, and they are seeking my life as well.” And what was the divine rely to him? “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” Romans 11:3-4

  3. Yo, Jim. The real question is, is there anyone left in this country who can hear such a powerful message? Is there anyone who can hear it without flashing in anger at the gall of being called to serve, seeing only false masters as possible benefactors? Is there anyone who can ponder it without disdain for the naivete of those who might cheerfully serve at all? This sermon is a challenge for all to throw off what I feel is the long now’s corporate narrative of competition and status in favor of the righteous, embracing yolk of unity and love. (Love this site!)

  4. Avatar for glarri glarri says:

    Thank you Rusty, that is a great sermon; and thank you TooLucid. And of course, thank you Martin Luther King, Jr.

  5. Beautiful sermon, reminds me of Milton’s “When I Consider How my Light is Spent”:

    When I consider how my light is spent
    Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
    And that one talent which is death to hide
    Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
    To serve therewith my Maker, and present
    My true account, lest he returning chide;
    “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
    I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
    That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
    Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
    Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
    Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
    And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
    They also serve who only stand and wait.

    I don’t think you need to be religious to realize that humility, love, and respect are foundational principles of a life well-spent - and that those ideas are needed just as much now as they were in sinful Babylon.

  6. Yes, there are some great thinkers on this website – Ben, Rusty and members such as yourself. But I feel we are a pack simply trying to survive in a hostile world. An MLK, an FDR, an Abraham Lincoln – these are people who through force of their words and ideas pushed the nation to do great things during times of great change and stress. Is it the times that creates greatness? Do things need to get far worse before people of that caliber crop up to lead the nation?

  7. Jim,

    I agree with the other comments to your questions, but I think we need to go further. The key, I think, is in the final paragraph. You don’t need to be a great thinker or an inspirational orator. You don’t need to have the blessing of the masses. Everything that we need is already here. It just needs to be used. It needs to be used in small ways and big ways. It needs to be used for the benefit of others. We need to be servants and shepherds. Not in the condescending way that the nudging oligarchy is trying to do, but in the spirit of a pack. I help you, you help me, together we all grow and experience freedom. By doing that, we inspire others to join the pack and adopt our ways. Not because we think it’s what’s best for them, but because they think it’s what’s best for them. Every day and every way, we need to be the change we seek in the world. Helping one another because by helping others, we help ourselves live in a community that we can feel proud in. The Drum major is useless without a band, and frankly, once they get to the parade, the band doesn’t need 'em anyways.

  8. Well said.

  9. I agree mostly, but worth noting that those guys didn’t have to compete with a billion other loonies who’ve been platformed by the internet/social media etc. and shriek all manner of viewpoints until you’re completely overwhelmed by the bombardment.

  10. Awesome read. To those bemoaning the lack of a champion: be your own. If you’re on here then you know that nobody is going to rescue you. You have to rescue yourself and rescue others. There is no champion coming to save us. How do we do it? It’s not by explaining your values to people and winning them over with logic. It’s living your values, and serving others selflessly. Where are you serving? How are you serving? Volunteer, don’t vote. Ghandi, Jesus, MLK, all followed the same path. People take note of other people that wear themselves out helping others at their own expense. You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up.

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