This week, on Monday January 16, after over 14 years of planning, deliberation and delay, the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. finally got to lay a wreath at the foot of the new monument erected in his honor. Chiseled on the north side of the monument are the words “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness”. This is a seemingly simple, straight-forward claim made by King about service and discipleship. Yet, just days before this celebration, after months of contentious debate, Ken Salazar, the Interior Secretary of the United States of America, issued orders to begin a process of re-inscription. It turns out that the engraving is a paraphrase, not a quote. The actual testimony comes from Dr. King’s sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct”, delivered on February 4, 1968, just weeks before his assassination. In this sermon, King talks about what he would want his friends and family to say about him at his funeral. “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.”
In her critique of the inscription on the monument, Maya Angelou says that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “had a humility that comes from deep inside.” She goes on to say that “the “if” clause that is left out is important. Paraphrasing it makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was….it makes him seem an egoist.” The comedian, Stephen Cobert, notes that the paraphrased inscription is “ short, pithy and to the point. Not Dr. King’s point, but still. You know what they say, brevity is the soul of saving money on chiseling fees.”
So what is the point here? What is the point of the critique and more importantly, what is the point of Dr. King’s original statement. And how does any of this relate to today’s readings that are focused on the call and the response of Samuel, one of God’s great OT prophets and the call and response of the first disciples of Jesus.
The point for Maya Angelou is that the inscription is a misrepresentation of Dr. King’s preaching on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, in a practical, everyday sense. The paraphrasing reduces the difficulties that Dr. King experienced and identified in the real life trial of living a committed life. Dr. King’s understanding of discipleship, as he outlines it in the entirety of his sermon, complicates any simple definition. Discipleship, for Dr. King, is not an exclusive calling received by a mighty prophet or a few followers chosen because they are up to the challenge. King’s sermon lifts up the discipleship of the many and not the aggrandizement of some mighty or powerful leader. If we take a closer look at Dr. King’s sermon, it turns out that the controversy around the inscription on the Martin Luther King Jr. monument is a controversy about the meaning of discipleship in the Gospel of Mark. And that is the point of today’s readings. Today’s readings focus on the call and the response that are the making of a disciple.
In his sermon, Dr. King says that “there is, deep within all of us, an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.” He says that “it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.” And, as it turns out, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, provide for Dr. King, a primary illustration of the drum major instinct as it resides in all of us. In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 10, verse 35, James and John ask Jesus to give them what they desire. They want to sit at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus in his glory. They want to stand at the front of the parade with him, ahead of the other disciples, when he enters his glory as the new King of Israel.
Today’s gospel tells the beginning of the story. John the Baptist has been arrested and Jesus comes to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. Jesus preaches a message of hope in a time of despair and anticipation. The people are oppressed by their political and religious leaders and along with John the Baptist they look forward to a coming Kingdom of God. Along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus begins his ministry and gathers his first disciples. Jesus sees James and John, the sons of Zebedee and he calls them. “Follow me”, he says and they respond. They drop everything and they leave their father in a boat with the hired man. If we take our reading from 1 Corinthians as our guide, we might say that James and John respond to the call of Jesus as model disciples. It seems that they are not tempted by their responsibilities to family and work and they are not affected by the everyday joys and sorrows of ordinary life that they leave behind. They hear the call and they follow Jesus. But as King’s sermon shows us, this is not the whole story. As the gospel unfolds, we see that their motivation is not entirely pure. The drum major instinct—the instinct to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to be first and to lead the parade—is a motivating force for James and John. It turns out that they are human, subject to human desiring just like all the rest of us.
King observes that the drum major instinct is dangerous. It causes us to do things that pull others down in order to push ourselves up. We spend our money on keeping up with the Jones, always searching for something better; a car that is more fuel efficient or a house that is greener than my neighbors. We join social groups and volunteer for causes that make us feel good about ourselves. Motivated by the drum major instinct we spend our money and our time in ways that make us feel special and more enlightened than the person next door or down the block. Dr. King preached that exclusivism in churches, racial prejudice in our social structures and governmental policies that seek world domination all come from the unharnessed energies of the drum major instinct. And there is the key; how do we harness this drum major energy because for Dr. King, the drum major instinct is not, in itself a bad thing. It is a motivating life force for all human beings. James and John, along with Simon and Andrew, drop everything and follow Jesus, in part, because they want to be first, to be the greatest among the disciples of Jesus. What Jesus does by his example and his teachings is to help his followers harness this basic instinct to be first. With Jesus, being first no longer means being more important or better than your neighbor, Instead greatness means being first in generosity and first in love. As the story unfolds, Jesus gives his followers a new definition of greatness. The greatest and the first among you shall be your servant. From this perspective discipleship is not a commitment made by the mighty or the chosen few. In his sermon, Dr. King preached that everybody could be great because everybody could serve.
This past Monday, President Barak Obama honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a call to public service. He addressed the controversy over the inscription on the Martin Luther King Jr. monument. President Obama said “what he (Dr. King) really said was that all of us can be a drum major for service, all of us can be a drum major for peace, there is nobody who can’t serve, nobody who can’t help someone else.” Today’s gospel, read in the light of Dr. King’s message, transforms our focus from the discipleship of a mighty prophet or the chosen few to the discipleship of the many. Following the way that Dr. King reads the Gospel of Mark, we are all called to live a committed life; we are all called to service and to love. We are all called to harness that drum major instinct so that we can be drum majors for peace, justice and righteousness. We are all called, the way that James and John were called, to leave our boats and our fathers behind, to harness our drum major instinct, in order to be servant leaders in a parade or a march for peace, justice, love and righteousness.