The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
What does the preaching of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., model for us as preachers today in the emerging political landscape of the Trump era?
Since the 2016 presidential election, some pastors may be feeling reticent to engage in controversial justice issues, or to “stir the pot” and create unnecessary tension in the church by addressing topics that some deem “too political.” The temptation is to “play it safe” and rationalize such a decision by deciding that the church is where people go to escape the world, not to further engage it. But insular preaching ignores the reality that many parishioners are dealing with a world outside the church that is increasingly fractious, confusing, confounding and even hostile to their values as Christians. To simply hunker down each week in the beautiful enclave of the Christian tradition without clear instruction on how to relate to the outside world will only continue churches on their path to dwindling relevancy.
Fortunately, Dr. King’s model of preaching that engages with the current events and timely concerns of his parishioners encourages, even urges us to bolster our courage and speak a prophetic word. Remember – there is a way to preach about politics (literally, the concerns of the citizenry, the polis), without being political (siding with a particular party or group). The key is to identify the biblical themes or values that underlie the contemporary figure or situation in question. Dr. King was an expert in this, and we would do well to learn from his strategies.
Homiletician Richard Lischer's analysis of King's sermons demonstrate the way he masterfully combined the strands of Protestant Liberalism, black theology, American civil religion, and, at the end, a strongly prophetical voice to the issues of segregation. Lischer not only read the texts of King's sermons, but listened to recordings in order to gain a fuller understanding of the performative aspects of the preaching that is often missed in edited, cleaned-up, written versions. What King was able to create was a preaching style and content that was able to comfort the "disinherited" (to use Howard Thurman's term), while appealing to the highest ideals of white society in a way that left them no choice but to answer the "call to repentance" or accept their own guilt.
King's early work demonstrated his belief that the great arc of human history is bending toward the God’s righteousness as manifest on earth. His Christmas Eve sermon, for example, sees the interconnection of all living beings and God's intention of healing, restoration, and redemption not just for the oppressed but also for the oppressor. As well, the famous “I Have a Dream Speech” paints a vision of God's intention for all children to live in harmony with one another regardless of skin color, creed or cultural background. Toward the end of King's life, however, the tone and content of his sermons became more caustic as he got at the heart of the demonic possession that had corrupted (and still corrupts) America's political and cultural heart.
If you read the works of King in the last three years of his life, you will begin to see a change in his rhetorical style and content. No longer content to affirm the highest ideals of American society, King seeks to unmask and reveal the dominating power structures underneath. This is brilliantly demonstrated in his sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” which is a virtuosic example of preaching that takes a commonly understood image – that of the drum major for a marching band – and refigures it to represent the ego hidden within us that seeks its own ends and power.
It is especially telling to read his sermon in light of the upcoming presidential inauguration. Read the following excerpt from King’s sermon while considering the words, Tweets, and actions of our president-elect, Donald Trump:
And there is deep down 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. . .There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. . .If this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one's personality to become distorted. I guess that's the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality. If it isn't harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. Have you ever heard people that—you know, and I'm sure you've met them—that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves. And they just boast and boast and boast, and that's the person who has not harnessed the drum major instinct . . .
And then the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up. And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct.
Whether you support or oppose the president-elect, there can be no denying that his “drum major instinct” goes wildly out of control. This is appealing to some – especially those who feel their own drum major instinct satisfied by attaching themselves to such a figure. But most reasonable people recognize that the kind of out-of-control egoism demonstrated by the man about to assume the highest, most powerful office in the world, poses a radical danger this country has never before seen. And in the spirit of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church in Nazi Germany (which served as a source of inspiration for Dr. King), preachers must speak a prophetic word that critiques the abuses of power being exercised by elected officials, or risk kowtowing to and being complicit with the forces of evil.
As a teacher of preaching, I encourage pastors to engage in prophetic critique of the “drum major instinct” that we’re seeing both writ large in politics, and infused into racist, xenophobic, misogynistic rhetoric of our citizenry fed by the intoxicating reach and anonymity of social media. Now is the time to expand our understanding of preaching beyond the confines of the church. Because both Scripture and Christian history show us that preaching has and should take place in the public square (witness Paul at the Aereopagus, or Dr. King speaking at the Lincoln Memorial, just to name two examples).
This is not to say that we should abandon the meaningful traditions of the church and abdicate our pastoral responsibilities to our parishioners. Rather, I suggest juxtaposing an understanding of our liturgical and pastoral commitments alongside contemporary concerns of public ethical engagement around those issues that are most threatening to “the least of these” – those most vulnerable in the Trump era who have little power, decreasing access to health care, education and economic security, and heightened levels of anxiety over their safety due to their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity or status. Preaching that engages on this level would create a "new thing" in the best, biblical sense of the word, and enhance the level of relevancy for our churches in the midst of a world that often seems to be spinning apart.
Regardless of one’s politics, the object lesson on the drum major instinct provided by the president-elect begs engagement. We have much to learn from Dr. King’s preaching, not the least of which is how to reframe the drum major instinct to be harnessed for good. In explaining how Jesus responded to the disciples James and John (Mark 10:35-35) who requested to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand (demonstrating their drum-major-egos), here’s the move King makes:
What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It's very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, "You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?" But that isn't what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. (Yes) It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."
And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, "Now brethren, I can't give you greatness. And really, I can't make you first." This is what Jesus said to James and John. "You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared."
Did you notice how he encourages the instinct to greatness, but redirects it toward the highest ideals of our faith? This is what we are called to as Christians. And this is what Christians must be calling our leaders to exemplify. This does not mean that a “Christian agenda” is to be imposed on the citizenry. Rather, we are holding ourselves and our leaders to the highest standards of moral and ethical preparedness and fitness. This is what we must name and claim as Christians who live in the world and have a responsibility for the world. May your life, your voice and your actions seek greatness in yourself and those who represent you – greatness in generosity, in moral excellence, in love.
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (KY) and an ordained Lutheran minister (ELCA), though the views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect the institutions she serves. She is the author of the book Creation Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).