LOCKETT: In His Light - Harnessing the ‘Drum Major Instinct’

July 9, 2019

Jesus told a parable to those who had been invited, noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table:

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place. Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you, he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’ Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:7-14)

Feb. 4, 2019, marked the 51st anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his powerful “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. His discourse was delivered at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church exactly two months before his assassination and would come to be his last sermon delivered at the church he shepherded.

ithout any argument the most evocative of his ministry, “The Drum Major Instinct” is my favorite oration delivered by Rev. King. In his oration, Rev. King addressed the basic human desire to find recognition and importance in some way.

He was teaching that a desolate person is one who is upset by another person receiving recognition greater than his. Loss of control of this instinct leads to boasting, crime, overspending and a desire to put others down to feel higher and better than they. The drive towards recognition and superiority is the base factor in any and all prejudice.

This factor causes people to aid their oppressors when they should be marching for justice for the poor and persecuted. 

Rev. King taught that the desire to be the first is appropriate when placed in a proper setting.

It is correct to desire to be first in moral greatness. When following the example of Jesus Christ, one must be first in service to others. Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. 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. 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 first group Rev. King cited were “joiners.” Rev. King stated, “You know, there are some people who just join everything. And it’s really a quest for attention and recognition and importance. And they get names that give them that impression.”

When I was in parish administration, part of my responsibilities was to sit in and review the movement and direction of the various parish ministries and organizations. I was amazed and somewhat bewildered to see the same faces in almost every organization and ministry meeting.

I would later come to lovingly label these folks as my ultimate wizards from everything from astrological science to mortuary science. Many of these individuals sat on these committees through two and three new pastor assignments. It was always my custom to tend my letter of resignation on the arrival of the new incoming pastor affording him the opportunity to compose his team.

The next factor highlighted by Rev. King is the persuasion of advertisement, which is defined as, “a type of product promotion that aims to persuade a consumer for buying a particular product, especially in the presence of several similar products in the same category. In addition to encouraging trial purchase, persuasive advertising can also be used to coax consumers to add and retain a particular brand in their consideration set, thereby increasing the chances of customer loyalty.”

We cannot turn on our television set or open a daily publication and not be blown away from the countless dollars that are being spent on advertisement from diet soft drinks to overpriced prescription medications. In their hour of discomfort, the average American cannot afford to purchase these items because of the pilfering of pharmaceutical companies and the folly of our elected national officers to comprise a suitable health care plan.

The next factor Rev. King cited in his sermon is living above one’s means, or to recall the 1969 Temptations hit, “Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down.” This is a very sad, but true phenomenon, which I am beginning to observe more and more in newly wedded couples. Innocently enough, the young couple is under the impression they must immediately possess all the creature comforts they enjoyed in the home of their parents, oblivious to the realization it took their parents years to acquire those goods.

Rev. King told his assembly that morning, “There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. And that’s where I want to move now. I want to move to the point of saying that if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted. I guess that’s the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality. If it isn’t harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. Have you ever heard people — you know, and I’m sure you’ve met them — that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves. And they just boast and boast and boast, and that’s the person who has not harnessed the drum major instinct.”

I think we can see this chasm within our political life and culture at this hour. We no longer talk to each other; we now talk at each other with the pretense our colleagues on the opposite side of the aisle does not have a clue of what he or she is talking about and I am the only one with all the correct answers and solutions.

Rev. King goes on in his teaching to state “and then it does other things to the personality. It causes you to lie about who you know sometimes. There are some people who are influence peddlers. And in their attempt to deal with the drum major instinct, they have to try to identify with the so-called big-name people. And if you’re not careful, they will make you think they know somebody that they don’t really know. They know them well, they sip tea with them, and they this-and-that. That happens to people.”

Recently at a function there was an individual that had been name-dropping all evening unaware that one of the individuals they were citing was a close friend of mine and majority of what they were sprouting was not true.

The final great tragedy of the distorted personality Rev. King cited was “that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up. And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct.”

We can see this trait coming to life in the increasing bullying, belittling and name-calling in our schools, politics and communities — even in our church communities. St. Augustine of Hippo taught, “humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”

We co-exist in a world where some are willing to submit their will to the desires of a leader from their misguided belief that the leader is acting in their best behalf. The person who leads solely on power loses authority. People come to trust such a leader less, which requires the exercise of more power to gain and maintain control. Generally, the less one uses power in leadership to gain control, the greater their authority becomes.

The one who leads based on authority must occasionally resort to the use of power for the greater welfare of their position.

St. Paul VI said, “The world calls for, and expects from us, simplicity of life, the spirit of prayer, charity towards all, especially towards the lowly and the poor, obedience and humility, detachment and self-sacrifice. Without this mark of holiness, our word will have difficulty in touching the heart of modern man.”

Where are you seated at the table?

Let us pray: O God, who resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble: grant us the virtue of true humility, where of your Only-begotten son showed in Himself a pattern for your faithful; that we may never by our pride provoke your anger, but rather by our meekness receive the riches of your grace and may we always remain glowing In His Light. Amen. 

Deacon Leonard Paul Lockett, A.S. B.S., is assigned to the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.