The Drum Major Instinct

During Sunday’s Super Bowl, Dodge ran a commercial in which they thought it would be a good idea to excerpt Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon to sell trucks:

This was obviously….not good.

Why is it not good? Well, let’s let Dr. King explain himself from the very same sermon:

Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. (Make it plain) In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. (Yes) That’s the way the advertisers do it.

This sermon, entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” is all about the desire to win, to get to the top, to climb over others and exalt oneself. To illustrate the dangers of this, Dr. King talks about several things, including rampant consumerism that drives people to keep up appearances through buying stuff.

I think Dr. King wouldn’t be too excited about his words being used 50 years later to sell trucks.

But while we’re here (thanks Dodge!) let’s see what else Dr. King had to say:

And not only does this thing go into the racial struggle, it goes into the struggle between nations. And I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy. And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years. (Yeah) If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around, because somebody’s going to make the mistake through our senseless blunderings of dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere. And then another one is going to drop. And don’t let anybody fool you, this can happen within a matter of seconds. (Amen) They have twenty-megaton bombs in Russia right now that can destroy a city as big as New York in three seconds, with everybody wiped away, and every building. And we can do the same thing to Russia and China.

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.

God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

Seems like his words are just relevant in the age of Trump and “America First” as they were during the age of Vietnam and Richard Nixon.

The grand message of this sermon was that service, not “winning,” not achievement, not status, not “Sitting at the right hand of the king,” is the best way to channel our will to succeed. This is true because this is the way of Jesus:

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.

Dr. King wasn’t selling anything. He was calling us to a higher good than self-enrichment. This commercial illustrated perfectly the danger of a neutered and tamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His words shouldn’t reinforce our biases or provide comfort to our consumerist impulses; they should convict, as the words of any prophet should.

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