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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MLK Wasn’t a White Idol

This piece was originally posted on MLK Day 2016, here. It’s been lightly updated for 2018.

It’s Martin Luther King Jr Day. A federal holiday, celebrated by all Americans, white and black, conservative and liberal, religious and secular, honoring the great civil rights leader. A day when we focus on the things he said and did.

mlk beyoond vietnam--spiritual deathExcept we have a rather narrow focus when we as a nation remember MLK. We focus on quotes like, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Because quotes like that one make MLK tame and safe and part of the establishment. It makes us think about racism as this thing that’s about overcoming a bad reaction to dark skin. It makes the civil rights movement an ascethic dispute that we won because no one hates black people for being black anymore, right?

But here’s the thing: Martin Luther King Jr was not a cuddly teddy bear.

MLK didn’t live to make white America feel better about itself by giving them a black person they could point to as that friend that makes them not-racist.

MLK didn’t act in non-political, safe, widely-popular ways. He didn’t do and say things that the white, conservative-and-liberal, majority establishment embraced. He didn’t make us feel self-righteous and vindicated.

MLK was a prophet in the truest sense, in that he came to challenge us and make us uncomfortable and show us our ever-present racist and bigoted ways.

Most importantly, MLK didn’t come for white America. MLK came from and for black America, and our posthumous adoption of MLK as a balm to ease our own guilt and sin is a terrible (but perfectly representative) example of the white tendency to culturally appropriate the things we like about minority culture, while ignoring the deeper meanings and values.

During his life, MLK fought for the equal rights of black America, not just in places like Birmingham and Selma and Memphis, but in Detroit and Washington DC and Chicago. All of white America was convicted, not just southern KKK members.

And he didn’t challenge white supremacy by asking us to be nice. He challenged it by identifying and calling out the inherent, systemic racism present in our governing structures and civil society. He called out the white privilege of all people, that we walk around with everyday, in all that we do. He not only identified the structural racism, he worked to ease it’s effects by supporting anti-poverty measures and equality legislation like the Voting Rights Act. He was targeted not just by the KKK and other racists, but by the FBI and our very own political leaders.

He understood that the liberation of his people was bound up with the liberation of all oppressed people, including poor working class whites and peasant villagers in Vietnam. That is why, during the last years of his life, he also spoke out strongly against the war in Vietnam and in support of anti-war efforts. It’s why his last work was the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to raise living standards for all Americans by fighting for a higher minimum wage and the rights of workers to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. When MLK was shot and killed in Memphis, he was there to stand in solidarity with unionized sanitation workers who were on strike for higher wages and better benefits.

Martin Luther King Jr worked for social justice and equality and the rights of all people to live and work and vote in a free society. And specifically, he worked to give black America the means to free itself from the shackles of white America. That fight is not over. If he were alive today, there is no doubt MLK would be in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore and Oakland, standing in support of Black Lives Matter. There is no doubt he would be working against the continued austerity and attempts by elected officials to dismantle our safety net and measures he supported during his life like the Voting Rights Act and Medicaid. There is no doubt he would fight against income inequality and for universal health care. There is no doubt he would be marching against white supremacists in Charlottesville, and calling out the blatant racism and white nationalism being buoyed by our president. There is no doubt he would join the calls to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings, and for stricter gun control. There is no doubt he, too, would be kneeling for the national anthem, and supporting Colin Kaepernick. There is no doubt he would be standing against hate and bigotry towards our Muslim brothers and sisters, and the call for more war overseas. He would not, in short, be a middle class white totem of good feelings and confirmation of our biases. He would still be the object of scorn and hate he was for most of white America when he was alive.

Today, let’s remember Martin Luther King Jr, but more importantly, lets feel convicted by his words and his actions, and know, his fight is on going and we, white America, we are part of what he was fighting against. That’s the first step to supporting his fight. MLK is not our security blanket, or the symbol of our progress. He was, and is, our accuser, and only be recognizing that, can we begin to move towards the America he envisioned.

MLK is Not a Cuddly Teddy Bear for White America

It’s Martin Luther King Jr Day. A federal holiday, celebrated by all Americans, white and black, conservative and liberal, religious and secular, honoring the great civil rights leader. A day when we focus on the things he said and did.

mlk beyoond vietnam--spiritual deathExcept we have a rather narrow focus when we as a nation remember MLK. We focus on quotes like, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Because quotes like that one make MLK tame and safe and part of the establishment. It makes us think about racism as this thing that’s about overcoming a bad reaction to dark skin. It makes the civil rights movement an ascethic dispute that we won because no one hates black people for being black anymore, right?

But here’s the thing: Martin Luther King Jr was not a cuddly teddy bear.

MLK didn’t live to make white America feel better about itself by giving them a black person they could point to as that friend that makes them not-racist.

MLK didn’t act in non-political, safe, widely-popular ways. He didn’t do and say things that the white, conservative-and-liberal, majority establishment embraced. He didn’t make us feel self-righteous and vindicated.

MLK was a prophet in the truest sense, in that he came to challenge us and make us uncomfortable and show us our ever-present racist and bigoted ways.

Most importantly, MLK didn’t come for white America. MLK came from and for black America, and our posthumous adoption of MLK as a balm to ease our own guilt and sin is a terrible (but perfectly representative) example of the white tendency to culturally appropriate the things we like about minority culture, while ignoring the deeper meanings and values.

During his life, MLK fought for the equal rights of black America, not just in places like Birmingham and Selma and Memphis, but in Detroit and Washington DC and Chicago. All of white America was convicted, not just southern KKK members.

And he didn’t challenge white supremacy by asking us to be nice. He challenged it by identifying and calling out the inherent, systemic racism present in our governing structures and civil society. He called out the white privilege of all people, that we walk around with everyday, in all that we do. He not only identified the structural racism, he worked to ease it’s effects by supporting anti-poverty measures and equality legislation like the Voting Rights Act. He was targeted not just by the KKK and other racists, but by the FBI and our very own political leaders.

He understood that the liberation of his people was bound up with the liberation of all oppressed people, including poor working class whites and peasant villagers in Vietnam. That is why, during the last years of his life, he also spoke out strongly against the war in Vietnam and in support of anti-war efforts. It’s why his last work was the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to raise living standards for all Americans by fighting for a higher minimum wage and the rights of workers to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. When MLK was shot and killed in Memphis, he was there to stand in solidarity with unionized sanitation workers who were on strike for higher wages and better benefits.

Martin Luther King Jr worked for social justice and equality and the rights of all people to live and work and vote in a free society. And specifically, he worked to give black America the means to free itself from the shackles of white America. That fight is not over. If we are alive today, there is no doubt MLK would be in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore and Oakland, standing in support of Black Lives Matter. There is no doubt he would be working against the continued austerity and attempts by elected officials to dismantle our safety net and measures he supported during his life like the Voting Rights Act and Medicaid. There is no doubt he would fight against income inequality and for universal health care. There is no doubt he would join the calls to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings, and for stricter gun control. There is no doubt he would be standing against hate and bigotry towards our Muslim brothers and sisters, and the call for more war overseas. He would not, in short, be a middle class white totem of good feelings and confirmation of our biases. He would still be the object of scorn and hate he was for most of white America when he was alive.

Today, let’s remember Martin Luther King Jr, but more importantly, lets feel convicted by his words and his actions, and know, his fight is on going and we, white America, we are part of what he was fighting against. That’s the first step to supporting his fight. MLK is not our security blanket, or the symbol of our progress. He was, and is, our accuser, and only be recognizing that, can we begin to move towards the America he envisioned.