By Joshua W. Scott
On February 4th, 1968, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct.” Examining Mark 10:35-44. With honesty, zeal, and wisdom, King leads listeners and readers alike to the inner examination room of our hearts. Are we Drum Majors for pridefulness or Drum Majors for service? Drum Majors for pridefulness are led by selfish desires, unhealthy ambition, and an increased desire to serve self. Drum Majors for service lift the downtrodden, journey with the oppressed, and encourage the depressed.
The insatiable appetite for more clouds our view and causes a life of service to come to a complete standstill. Craving more can quickly turn into greediness, and King warns against judging James and John in the text of Mark 10:35-44 because inside of us is naturally the Drum Major instinct leaning towards the service of self. This is seen in our contemporary society as decisions are one-sided, and empathy remains a goal instead of a norm that is practiced. The Drum Major instinct to serve the self and soak up the light prevents us from seeing our neighbor because the bulk of our efforts remains focused on us.
However, the Drum Major instinct is not horrible if harnessed properly as King shares,
“It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t 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. 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.”
The Drum Major Instinct is more than craving the spotlight, but it is about using the light Christ has given us to illuminate and eradicate darkness in the world. Jesus reorders our priorities, and as Paul shares in 2 Corinthians, 5:14 is asking that the love of Christ compel us to service. The only way for us to love our neighbor correctly is to view everyone as our neighbor and live a life of service. King echoes the new covenant definition of greatness, saying,
“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 or she who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.”
We do well to hold close to our hearts daily this definition of greatness. As we reflect on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Drum Majors are placed in front of a marching band to provide instruction, direction, and clarity. The responsibilities of a drum major require more than being seen by others, but drum majors are in the front for a specific reason. What do you desire to be known for? Why do you crave the spotlight? What is your motive? The answers to these questions will reveal our selfish or altruistic intentions.
In Mark 12:31, the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” is shared. This is a clarion call to be a Drum Major for love, mercy, joy, and peace. Beyond human applause and accolades, Dr. King shared,
“Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. 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.”
In our desire to be in front, may we yearn to exhibit compassion in our frustration; May we display mercy instead of hatred to strangers and our friends. May we aspire to increase peace throughout the world daily. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remained committed to service and existing as a drum major for justice. My prayer and hope are that God will push us past our self-centered shallowness and lead us into a committed life of service. Drum Majors for love are always needed because true greatness is in our service.
Dr. Joshua W. Scott is an associate pastor at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, who loves God, his wife Lauren, and his dog Dawn.