The Drum Major Instinct

Early in my community organizing career (which, let’s be honest, wasn’t that long ago), I was required to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct”. I haven’t thought about it in about a year, but it came into my mind this weekend during Mass.

Everyone should read this piece by MLK. But just so you understand the context for this blog post, MLK discusses our very human desires for recognition, importance, attention, and just in general being first. He describes the scene in Mark when James and John ask to be seated at Jesus’s left and right. Instead of condemning James and John like we might be predisposed to do, we should realize that there must be a reason all of us have this instinct – what MLK calls the drum major instinct. Like all other things we’ve been given by God, this drum major instinct has been so perverted that we use it to get ahead of others by pushing them down. But Jesus’s response doesn’t indicate that James and John should get rid of their desire to be the best. He simply redefines the definition of greatness.

So why did this come into my mind at Mass this Sunday? Well, every Sunday, I always seem to be struck by someone who seems holier than I do. Who smiles at the perfect time. Who looks solemn and contrite in the appropriate places. Who can recite everything without looking at her Missal. And who generally looks so focused on the Word and on God in the Mass that I wonder how I can get that focused.

This Sunday, I felt a twinge of guilt about it. I should be thinking about God and his mercy and love, after all. Not comparing myself to someone else. I do enough of that outside of church.

But then I thought, well, isn’t that why we have saints? To strive to be as good and holy as people who achieved the highest level of union with God before us?

Sure, this can quickly become distorted. There’s the typical “holier than thou” stereotype about less-than-welcoming religious people, after all. What else is new? My research on Theology of the Body is another example of how a great gift can be corrupted by our sins. But TOB shows us that we must harness the gift of sexuality to get the joy and peace we can out of it. Similarly, we must harness this gift of achievement that we’ve been given by God if we truly want to feel accomplished. And that means serving. Serving individuals. Serving communities. Serving the world.

So I won’t feel so bad about looking up to someone else in Mass anymore. As long as I remember that my desire to be better is ultimately for the benefit of God and fear of his judgement, not for or because of anyone else who’s sitting in the church that day.

“Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right side or your left side, not for any selfish reason…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.”

Keep striving.



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