Reflection: Drum Major Instinct

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant...”  Mark 10:43

I’ve been part of a few contentious staff meetings over the years—you know the kind. Walk into the conference room: arms are crossed, no laughter, no engagement, no eye contact between the participants. Anger can’t be measured or seen, but it’s in the room. Thick. Palpable. Trust has calcified, losing its limbering quality of loosening social relations. And then there’s the pit in your stomach. Uninvited anxiety enters your system. Adrenaline and cortisol flow. Deep breath. You’re the leader. Your job—bring the team back from the brink of collapse. 

To be a fly on the wall at Jesus’ Monday morning staff meeting—the meeting after 10 of his disciples discover their two social climbing colleagues, James and John, secretly lobbied Jesus for prominent cabinet posts in the new regime—would have been fascinating. “Indignant” (10:41) is the adjective used by the writer Mark to describe the feelings of the angered 10. Egos apparently bruised, trust broken, emotions running high. Jesus, it’s time to watch a TED talk on “How to Have Tough Conversations.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about this very moment in one of his lesser-known sermons called, The Drum Major Instinct—delivered at his home church Ebenezer Baptist on February 4th, 1968. For those who appreciate homiletics as an art form, it’s an oratorical masterpiece.  The antiquated pre-digital recording (with disruptions, crackling static, parishioners commenting, babies crying) only adds to the drama and authenticity. Oh, and 53 years later, the content is still relevant. Truth never seems to go out of style. 

King notes that Jesus doesn’t judge James and John harshly for their selfish request. He acknowledges that we all battle the same impulse—our primal need to be recognized, appreciated, “first in line”....  It’s the “Drum Major Instinct”, says King, which beckons us to lead the parade. Deep down we all secretly yearn for attention, approval and status. Psychotherapist Alfred Adler argues it’s the dominant impulse of the human condition.

The Drum Major Instinct, however, is only problematic if not controlled—becoming destructive not only to ourselves, but those around us. “It’s vitamin A to our ego,” shares King with his congregation. “It’s what advertisers tap into, compelling us to buy products that elevate our social position, while dragging us into personal debt by living beyond our means.”  Unchecked, The Drum Major Instinct leads to “snobbish exclusion, classism, racism”—why else would we put others down so we can elevate our self-importance?

So how does Jesus facilitate his contentious Monday morning staff meeting?  Brilliantly.  According to King, Jesus doesn’t condemn John and James or even call them selfish. He doesn’t belittle them for raising their ego-driven question. Instead Jesus seems to say: “You want to be great? Wonderful!  You want to be important? Fantastic!  You want to be significant? Terrific!”  It might surprise you, but the “Drum Major Instinct” is NOT condemned. Jesus simply reorders priorities and redirects our energy. 

You want to be first?  Be first in love!  You want to be significant?  Be significant in generosity! You want to be great?  Be great in humility and service!  Jesus provides a whole new definition of greatness—a definition counterintuitive to the human condition. And this leads to one of my favorite lines in King’s sermon—words so appropriate for this moment in history.

“Everybody can be great...because everyone can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” 

As King reaches the climax of his sermon, he reflects on his own mortality. Not in a morbid way, but in a way that calls his listeners to reflect on their own brief lives. King shares how he’d like to be eulogized at his funeral:

“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody...tried to be right on the war question ...tried to feed the hungry....tried to clothe those who were naked...tried to love and served humanity....”

Eerily the recording goes silent midsentence during King’s crescendo—it just cuts off, serendipitously leaving a silent pause long enough for the listeners to place themselves in the eulogy.

And that’s a good space to place ourselves on this important and commemorative day.  A space to reflect on our lives. A space to reflect on the meaning of true greatness. A space to ask ourselves, are we using our Drum Major Instinct for the right things -- like justice, righteousness, peace, humility and service.

Find joy in your service today—

Bruce Main

PS. Here’s a link to the original sermon.  You might enjoy listening. 

King's Sermon

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