Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King Jr: The Drum Major Instinct

I apologize to those who may have heard me talk about the drum-major instinct, and I apologize for not using the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to focus on the main thrust of his life's work.

In high school, I went on a Martin Luther King kick that consumed a couple of those years. I read all of his speeches, picked up his autobiography and found a few biographies I thought I could trust and tried to learn everything I could about the man. I found in MLK a sensible alternative to some of the more radical writings of the era, namely my odd early obsession with Malcolm X. Suffice it to say (for now anyway) that I love MLK because his celebrated speeches are deeply grounded in God and natural right and largely provide a sturdy sense of honor, respect and equality that is compatible with the greater American project.

I found MLK's drum major instinct speech nearly four years ago. I think it struck me because it spoke to my premature sense of grandeur and taught me that I could bridle it into something productive.

Before going into the speech, let me ask if it's wrong to seek glory or want to be great? I think this is an honest and important question for all people, and especially Christians, to consider. Does the commandment to be humble leave any room for the quest for greatness?

Think on.

Here is the setup to the speech: MLK gives this speech two months before his assasination at the Ebeneezer Church in Atlanta. He begins by giving us a set of scriptures in Mark 10, beginning with verse 35.

"And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came unto him saying, ‘Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire.’ And he said unto them, ‘What would ye that I should do for you?’ And they said unto him, ‘Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.’ But Jesus said unto them, ‘Ye know not what ye ask: Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ And they said unto him, ‘We can.’ And Jesus said unto them, ‘Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of, and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized: but to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.’"
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 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."

As MLK sees it, and as I see it, this scripture is about greatness, even glory. James and John come to the Savior and tell Him they want to be leaders; they want to be at the head. They want to be great. Here, where many of us would condemn these apostles, Jesus doesn't chastise but tells them that such an honor can only be earned.

And then the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct... . Now the other problem is, when you don't harness the drum major instinct—this uncontrolled aspect of it—is that it leads to snobbish exclusivism. It leads to snobbish exclusivism. ... And you know, that can happen with the church; I know churches get in that bind sometimes. (Amen, Make it plain) I've been to churches, you know, and they say, "We have so many doctors, and so many school teachers, and so many lawyers, and so many businessmen in our church." And that's fine, because doctors need to go to church, and lawyers, and businessmen, teachers—they ought to be in church. But they say that—even the preacher sometimes will go all through that—they say that as if the other people don't count. (Amen)

And the church is the one place where a doctor ought to forget that he's a doctor. The church is the one place where a Ph.D. ought to forget that he's a Ph.D. (Yes) The church is the one place that the school teacher ought to forget the degree she has behind her name. The church is the one place where the lawyer ought to forget that he's a lawyer. And any church that violates the "whosoever will, let him come" doctrine is a dead, cold church, (Yes) and nothing but a little social club with a thin veneer of religiosity.

When the church is true to its nature, (Whoo) it says, "Whosoever will, let him come." (Yes) And it does not supposed to satisfy the perverted uses of the drum major instinct. It's the one place where everybody should be the same, standing before a common master and Savior. (Yes, sir) And a recognition grows out of this—that all men are brothers because they are children (Yes) of a common father.

It is natural to want to be great, to want to be important. It can even be good. But this natural desire is easily perverted. MLK even thought that much of the race problem had to do with the fact that many whites had let this desire become so perverted that they were willing to degrade another race so that they could feel superior. This is a perversion of the 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.... . 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.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) 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. (Amen) And that's all I want to say. ...

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.

I submit that the question of greatness must be subsumed into what we will be great for. There is surely a difference in the man who seeks glory only to point it all back on himself and the man who uses it show something far greater and nobler. This is the purpose of great men and women. Man wants to be great. The key is to channel this desire into being great for God. If you do not believe in God, be great in love, mercy, generosity and virtue. Be great for something that transcends the limited reach of passing fame. Be great for something higher than yourself.

Understood this way, glory has a certain humbling element that places man in his proper place. It shows man his potential, but reminds him that he is not great on his own. It is a glory that doesn't come from the adoration of others, but the glory of the Truth for which we live. It is the proper understanding of the drum major instinct.

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Friday, January 1, 2010

A Very Merry (sterile) Christmas

I've tried to convince myself that as long as the Christmas lights are still up around the neighborhood I have good reason to be writing about Christmas. Unfortunately, despite my journalism training, timeliness doesn't appear to be my strongsuit when it comes to this blog.

I try to read A Christmas Carol every Christmas, and I've done so every year since my European history teacher, Mr. Rice, recommended it. Now that I think about, I'm sure he must have given extra credit for it, because I was far too lazy in high school to read something for enjoyment — during vacation nonetheless. Not too much has changed since then.

As I read the book this time, one thought was pounded into my mind. Let me preface this thought by saying that Charles Dickens was a deeply Christian man, and his deeply-rooted faith is evident in A Christmas Carol's first pages. While we may read A Christmas Carol every year, he wrote a history of Jesus Christ's life and teachings and read it to his children every Christmas. It's clear what Dickens wanted his children to celebrate in Christmas.

Perhaps this is why I find it ironic that some of the most richest and most Christ-oriented elements in A Christmas Carol are often sterilized in modern portrayals of the story as to transform the book into nothing more than an advocate for basic notions of humanitarian goodness. Of course, these things are an important of the book and essential parts of being a Christian, but it is not the only or even core lesson Dickens intended for his work.

From the beginning, Marley is the antithesis of "someone who knew how to keep Christmas well." He was "good man of business," but he neglected the needs of those around him and closed his heart to humanity and life's highest gifts. In explicit terms (which are often left out of modern versions), Marley tells Scrooge that he suffers most at Christmas and rhetorically asks Scrooge "Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star (Dickens' emphasis) which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!"

Dickens is in control of his work. The reference to Christ as the solution to Marley's miserable life and subsequent suffering is not by accident, and its omission from modern portrayals risks misunderstanding the story as a whole. If Marley represents what Scrooge's suffering will be, then Christ is the only way to escape it. If Marley is a life of misery looks like, Christ is the source of Scrooge's rebirth to into the life of happiness that we see at the end of the book. Dickens sets up the dichotomy from the beginning. Christ on one hand, misery on the other.

The remainder of the book is equally remarkable in its subtle references to Christ, and I'll perhaps take the time to write about them later — or maybe let you figure them out. The book is a rich read, and I highly suggest it for Christmas (or anytime) reading, and especially the kind of reading that doesn't mind being interrupted by reflection from time to time.

My favorite version was put out a few years ago. The illustrations are by P.J. Lynch and the words are Dickens', in their entirety. Lynch's work is beautiful and gives the story the added grace of a children's book, all while maintaining the depth and feel of the original. Here's a link to Lynch's work.