03/05/2012 12:33 pm ET Updated May 05, 2012

Thoughts on the Drum Major Instinct in an Election Year

Dr. King preached a sermon before the home audience, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1968. He was serving as its co-pastor with his father at the time. Titled "The Drum Major Instinct," it was a sermon in which, many say, he seemed to sense his own limited days. It was two months later that he was assassinated. The sermon ends almost allegorically with instructions for his funeral and a eulogy for himself.

"I'd like somebody to mention that day," he instructs, "that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others ... tried to love somebody ... to be right on the war question ... to feed the hungry ... to clothe the naked ... to visit those who were in prison ... to love and serve humanity ... If you want to say I'm a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice ... peace ... and righteousness. All of the other shallow things will not matter." And then he quotes the old hymn, "If I can help somebody":

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he's traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.

As Dr. King explains it, "Drum Major Instinct" is the desire to be first, to lead the parade. It desires recognition, importance, attention and being first. He recollects that it is what James and John possessed when they asked Jesus to sit beside him in glory, one at the right and the other at the left. It is a basic human impulse for recognition. Yet, the drum major instinct can turn into a pernicious, dangerous and unharnessed instinct. It can cause one's personality to be distorted. If it isn't harnessed, he warns, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. In other words, your energies are spent propping up your pretentions of privilege.

The consequences of this unharnessed instinct are devastating. The distorted personality -- the one who tells illusory stories about his prosperity -- ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. "And whenever you do that," Dr. King says, "you engage in some of the most vicious activities." The instinct can breed exclusivism. It can become the dangerous force of classism. It leads to tragic race prejudice, the most "tragic expressions of inhumanity." It fosters and uses every means available to buttress arrogant nationalism. It prevents the United States from seeing, as Dr. King says, how we are criminals in our senseless, unjust wars. Ironically, it was his confrontation with the drum major instinct gone bad, settled into white supremacy, economic apartheid and warring nationalism that got him killed.

In the "Drum Major Instinctb" Dr. King doesn't spend much time talking the stories we tell ourselves, the ones that prop up our pretensions to privilege. He doesn't have to. The people at Ebenezer Baptist Church lived them on a daily basis in Atlanta. In the Civil Rights decades, prosperity and power were narrated by race and class. So, too, were poverty and powerlessness. Looking at social data today, it appears that not much has changed since 1968.

This includes the origins of the "Drum Major Instincts" of race and class privilege. The same old stories still feed them. They handed to us by our socio-cultural placements. Through these stories we begin to believe we are important, deserving, meritorious, exemplary and indispensable. On the other hand, through these stories we begin to believe we are unimportant, undeserving, irrelevant and dispensable. Our stories of privilege fashion our social instincts.

Several years ago a commercial aired in Nashville for St. Thomas Health Services that featured former Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher. In this commercial, the most interesting, as well as disturbing, quote from the football expert was: "Life. You get back what you put into it." In other words, you get what you deserve, and apparently a lot of what you deserve is affected by what you get with your birthday suit.

Is this really a good story? In effect, individuals can remove percentages of risk by maintaining healthy bodies and minds, but doctors can never tell a patient absolutely, "Health. You get back what you put into it." Illness does not reward and punish in that way. How many doctors and nurses have treated patients who took care of their bodies and played by healthy diet and exercise rules yet suffered from genetic illnesses, traumas, tragedies or unexplainable disease? The best we can say about health is that it's predictable and unpredictable, logical and absurd, controllable and uncontrollable.

Yet, this kind of story has broad effects on our Drum Major instincts. When health is perceived to be merited, the healthy believe they can neither be moved nor defeated. On the other hand, the sick understand that the rules of life do not guarantee this kind of success. Most insidiously, our value as human beings is determined by things largely out of our control.

This commercial, in my mind, serves as an analogy to the political culture wars being waged this election season. As the Republican debates (the only game in town right now) wear on, the beat of the Drum Majors gets louder. Stories are told about groups of citizens who do and do not merit help surviving the harsh undulations of free market rhythms, both here and abroad. "Let those without health insurance die," goes the line. "Protect the job creators!" Here the Drum Beat has turned into a war beat. Its leaders are the elite in American society, and its foes the "principles and slogans of the victim's revolution" to borrow a phrase from conservative Christian scholar and author Dinesh D'Souza.

The interesting thing about the old hymn "If I Can Help Somebody" is the way Dr. King uses it. "If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought, If I can spread the message as the master taught, Then my living will not be in vain." He understands very clearly that the last three lines need a context. Without the confession that a Drum Major Instinct can drive exclusivism, classism and racism, this hymn potentially can be very dangerous. The "I" can represent the privileged ego and salvation can be a force that shapes the world according to the false stories of security and privilege. The message can be oppressive and the name of Jesus can be invoked for injustice. It can be a mantra for the powerful to help others look like themselves.