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Discovering the radical vision of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

By Billy Wharton

January 17, 2011 (MLK Day) -- Bronx County Independent Examiner -- Discovering the radical message in the writings of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. is no easy task for secular leftists. It requires a leap into the world of black Christian theology, a long tradition that has inspired multiple attempts at emancipation – from the slave revolt of Nat Turner to the modern civil rights movement. However, the terms of discussion inside of this tradition require secular readers to think through categories firmly rooted in Christian teachings. Some patience and a willingness to deal with what might be unfamiliar examples can yield new perspectives on an American tradition dedicated to service in the call of human freedom.

Most commentators on left have no time for such exercises. They automatically gravitate toward instances when King engages with mainly secular audiences. They take inspiration from King’s overt admission of his socialist leanings, “There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.”  Focus is placed on his brave stand against the war in Vietnam and his militant insistence on the need for racial integration. 

These are important lessons that should be recognised, but they also miss a major part of the brilliance of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. That brilliance was best on display from the pulpit, when he spoke to a Christian audience. When he exploded the boundaries that often restrict the church’s desire or ability to view social justice as a goal. Those conversations where Jesus was central to King and the goal of human liberation was the desired outcome.

This short piece looks at one such moment. A sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct” delivered by Dr. King near the end of his life on February 4, 1968.  It encapsulates the manner in which the social radicalism he carried out was informed by a radical reading of Christian theology. And it carries, even more so 40 years later, important lessons for those interested in human liberation today.

The sermon revolves around an unpacking of a biblical lesson from the Gospel of Saint Mark. In it, James and John request two seats on each side of the throne of Jesus. Jesus rebukes them stating that, “but to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared".

King interprets this interaction as evidence of the drive for personal recognition among human beings. This is a natural drive he argues, “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first”.  He calls this the “drum major instinct” and locates it in the request of James and John for a place in heaven that recognises their service as disciples and their piety.

And this drum major instinct operates in many moments of human existence, from childhood when babies cry out for recognition from their parents to adults who wish to join social groups in an attempt to be recognised. This is also, he argued, played upon by corporations who attempt to tap into this drive by designing advertising that offers consumer items – the latest whiskey or lipstick or other product – that will allow purchasers to display their distinction from others in society.

King then launches into an extended discussion of personal choices and how they are informed by the drum major instinct, but lead to poor life decisions. He offers instances of people living above their means – owning a car too expensive for their paycheque or a house they cannot pay for. He pursues an argument that seems a lot like the personal responsibility discourse of today’s conservatives.

However, while a conservative might stop here, King does not. He continues that this drive to covet expensive things often results in groups with power pushing down the weak. He sees a “snobbish exclusivism” in churches who cater to the rich and college fraternities who secure social privileges for their members. These institutions establish dangerous hierarchies linked to all sorts of social inequality.

This unharnessed instinct also informs racism. King offers a conversation he had while jailed with a poor white man in Birmingham. He implores the man to join the civil rights marches, to view them as expressions of the desire of the poor to be free and for the white man to see himself as a part of such a broader class community. Drawing on the earlier work of W.E.B. DuBois about the psychological wages of whiteness, he states:

You fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.

Whiteness separates this person from his natural allies, forcing him to support his oppressors in return for some social recognition produced by the drum major instinct.

King takes this analysis to an even higher level, seeing it in the militaristic drives of nations themselves. He decries the global nuclear arms, condemns the US war in Vietnam and sees in US foreign policy something akin to a sin against God. “We are”, he preached emphatically, “criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I'm going to continue to say it. And we won't stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.” 

To all of these negative instances of the drum major instinct, King counterpoises the life of Jesus. He sees in Jesus’ answer to James and John that he cannot assign the right and left hand that it is only for those who are prepared, a way out. King presents a new definition of greatness that the “greatest among you shall be your servant”.  He locates this positive impulse for recognition through service in the life work of Jesus.

And this example of Jesus is not one of an enlightened elite, it is an example available to all people. All people can serve the drum major instinct in a positive way.

"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”, he argued, “a soul generated by love”.  Such qualities are available to everyone.

King exits his prophetic sermon by offering his own life for examination. He rejects all of the awards he has been given. He does not care about the university degrees he as achieved. Instead, he wants to be recognised as “a drum major for righteousness”.  And the righteousness he wishes to spread can “make of this old world a new world”.

In this sermon we can see the full prophetic vision of Dr King. He draws upon the long tradition of liberation theology in the black Christian church. The task is not just to pray for forgiveness or to donate to the church to secure a place in heaven. It is, instead, to “make of this old world a new world”.  To work within the tradition that does not wait for deliverance upon death, but seeks to build heaven on earth through service in the name of social justice.

Socialists can see themselves inside of such a message regardless of their particular views on religion.

Further, King recognises the manner in which capitalism, a system dedicated to creating contrived needs, seeks to direct human drives into consumption. How consumer identities become substitutes for the ability to identify with fellow humans through service. Simultaneously, how other forms of exclusion, especially racism and imperially informed patriotism, seek to negatively feed the desire for recognition.

One can see in the racial conflict currently underway in Arizona, and in the right-wing Tea Party movement more generally, the very same dynamics King describes in his sermon. Whites dispossessed by the system seek to recover some sense of themselves by identifying immigrants as enemies. In the process, of course, they ally themselves with the very same people and the same system that dispossessed them. Perhaps we can take the cue from King and invite such people to participate in real movements for human liberation, to exchange their negative racially informed attempt at recognition for one that aims to make a new, better world.

Finally, we take away from King’s sermon the impulse to create a universal project for liberation. We need movements that allow participation from everyone, that allow everyone to serve the cause of justice and that give people, just like James and John, the empowerment to place them back in control of their own destinies. Jesus could not confer the position of grace on his two disciples. They had to decide to prepare themselves and earn it through their actions. What better time than now – in a moment of mass unemployment, war and racial exclusion – to prepare ourselves and act. 

All of these ideas are available in what is often seen as King’s religious speeches and writings. Socialists and other leftists should not shy away from them even if King does not use the explicitly political categories he employs in other pieces. There is in King’s religious works, a powerful invitation to act, the moral categories to sustain such action and a desire to expose the false choices presented by the system. All this along with the call to “make of this old world a new world.”

Socialists can help give this call a new life. Happy birthday Dr. King.

[Billy Wharton is co-chair Socialist Party USA.]

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