January 27, 2019
Unlike some other people in my household, when it comes to Super Bowl Sunday, I tend to be a person who is more invested in the actual football game than anything else. Especially when the Patriots are playing, the game is more important to me than the food. Or the fellowship. Or the commercials.
Having said that, I do recall one commercial from last year’s Super Bowl that was particularly striking. It was an advertisement for Ram trucks. Now I don’t have anything personal against Ram trucks. But last year’s Super Bowl commercial for Ram trucks featured a famous voice-over. As images of hard working Americans and images of American heroism flashed across the screen, the voice in the background was unmistakable. It was actually the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching a portion of one of his final sermons, entitled, “The Drum Major Instinct.”
“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. That’s a new definition of greatness… By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great… 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. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
When Dr. King’s voice faded out and the commercial came to an end, the tagline was written across the bottom of the screen. “Ram trucks…built to serve.”
As I reflect on that commercial, I understand that 2018 marked the fifty year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s. death. And maybe the Dodge company, maker of Ram trucks, was trying to find a way to honor King’s death by using one of his sermons in their Super Bowl commercial. But despite the fact that Dodge gained official approval from the manager of Martin Luther King’s estate to use “The Drum Major Instinct” in their commercial, the backlash from King’s family members and across social media in the wake of the Super Bowl was both swift and harsh. Especially in light of the fact that there is another portion in the same sermon where Dr. King makes his opinion clear…
“Do you ever see people buy cars they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. But it feeds a repressed ego. You know, economists tell us that your automobile should not cost more than half your annual income. So if you make an income of $5000, your car shouldn’t cost more than about $2500. That’s just good economics… But now the problem is the drum major instinct. And you know, you see people over and over again with the drum major instinct taking them over. And they just live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses”
I’m not convinced any of Martin Luther King’s sermons are fit for a commercial. Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to try and pull a fifteen second soundbyte out of a forty minute sermon. But I’m particularly skeptical of using “The Drum Major Instinct” in an advertisement, given that the sermon explicitly confronts the dangers of capitalism and even calls out specific advertisers by name. Whatever good intentions they might have had, the fact is that one year ago, Dodge used a sermon, preached by a messenger with a message that both contradicted and condemned corporate marketing, to sell more trucks. Understandably, the commercial was widely panned for being shallow and crass…
Almost fifty-one years ago now, on February 4th, 1968, exactly two months before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached “The Drum Major Instinct” to his home congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. And two months and five days after he preached the sermon, on April 9th, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr’s nationally televised funeral took place in his same Ebenezer Baptist home church, excerpts from “The Drum Major Instinct” were read during the service.
In the sermon, Dr. King preached on the virtues of service and he used the Bible to redefine false ideals of greatness. Specifically, King drew on the last two verses in this morning’s Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Matthew. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Our human tendency to seek recognition, to stand out, to be viewed as head and shoulders above the rest, King labeled “the drum major instinct.” And to be sure, there are times when the drum major instinct can be nurtured and utilized as a powerful resource for good. By the same token, however, the drum major instinct can also be abused for self-serving and arrogant ends.
“The Drum Major Instinct” addressed many of the faith and justice themes that undergirded Martin Luther King’s ministry and activism. Moreover, during the sermon, Dr. King illustrated his religious lesson with social messages that are as urgent today as they were back in 1968.
King counseled his congregation, for example, not to be taken in by advertisers who insist that material goods can lead to self-worth. He cautioned against “snobbish exclusivism” that leads churches to care more about their social standing than they do about their mission to be a sanctuary for all people.
Later on in the sermon, King referred to America’s “tragic race prejudice” which leads white people to believe in their own supremacy. And he railed against American attempts to attain global domination as nothing more than a perversion of greatness.
Do materialism and greed continue to be defining issues in our culture in 2019 when more is usually seen as better and enough is never really enough? Are those who speak the language and live by the ideals of white supremacy not only still visible but actually emboldened in our nation in the year 2019? Do we not in 2019 continue our efforts to assert and maintain American power and influence on a global scale?
And what about the Christian church? Are we so caught up in numbers and statistics and trends and the way we are perceived by others that we have forgotten our fundamental mission to feed the hungry and free the imprisoned and seek what is right for the wronged and provide sanctuary for the violated?
In short, King preached that greatness cannot be won by might, nor by virtue of belonging to a privileged group. But if the drum major instinct can instead be put to use in the service of justice, we can strive toward the kind of greatness embodied by Jesus Christ. All that’s required for anyone to be a drum major is, in Dr. King’s words, “a heart full of grace” and a “soul generated by love.”
The most amazing and powerful part of “The Drum Major Instinct” occurred at the end of the sermon when Martin Luther King anticipated his own death. Granted, none of us are in Dr. King’s position where we live with constant threats on our own lives. Yet, how many of us have ever really considered the way we would like to be remembered after we die? More precisely, have any of us given any real thought to the words we hope people will say about us at the time of our own funerals? Or the words we might say about ourselves?
As the sermon neared its conclusion, the words and images King used almost sound like they were spoken posthumously after his death. They had an otherworldly tone to them as if he was speaking from beyond the grave. King started this final section in the sermon by encouraging whoever eulogized him to be brief. At the same time, he suggested that his funeral skip over the countless awards and degrees King received during his lifetime.
And then King launched into the soaring rhetoric that characterized so many of his sermons and speeches. Listen to a recording of the original sermon if you have a chance so you can hear his cadence and the response of the congregation as King preached.
“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 that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; 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.”
“The Drum Major Instinct” is a pitch perfect counterpoint to the classism and racism and militarism and materialism that is still rife in our 2019 world. Profound and fierce, the message and the messenger inspire us to set aside worldly descriptions of greatness while simultaneously setting our sights on Christ’s definition.
Rising up to serve one another with a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. And living committed lives together so we can build a more just world. The drum major instinct. Amen.