Reflections on Dr. King at 90

Had he lived, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned 90 years old last week.  He died before he reached 40, during one of the most turbulent years in our nation’s history:  1968.  It was a year of great achievements:  Apollo 8 saw the first human beings enter the orbit of the moon.  Within a year, the first human being would walk on the moon, marking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  Tens of millions of people in former European and American colonies were living in newly independent nations.  President Johnson had launched a War on Poverty.

At the same time, LBJ was doubling down on our nation’s commitment of blood and treasure to a failed war in Vietnam.  Chicago would be torn apart by protests during the Democratic National Convention.  Robert F. Kennedy would join Dr. King as the victim of assassination.  In the wake of Dr. King’s killing, cities throughout the country, including Chicago, went up in flames. The fuel was not merely gasoline but also anger, frustration, sadness and despair.  Over fifty years later, parts of those cities, including Chicago, are still in ruins.

In the last years of his life, Dr. King experienced his own ongoing conversion.  While his initial focus as a civil rights leader was the liberation of Black Americans on the streets of Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma and across the South, the scope of his vision and his concern began to widen.  It grew to include Blacks in the urban North, Mexican American farm workers in California and the Southwest, poor and working class Whites, and people of color throughout the world, including and most controversially those in Vietnam—those whose flesh was burned with napalm, whose deltas and villages were carpet-bombed, whose women, elderly and children were massacred by American soldiers out of fear, ignorance and rage at seeing their own friends killed.

It was near the end of his life that Dr. King preached some of his most powerful and provocative sermons.  My favorite is called “Drum Major for Justice.”  It was his reflection on Mark 10:35-42.

In his sermon, Dr. King recognized that the main reason that the other disciples criticized James and John for their request and their ambition was that they, too, wanted to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he came into his glory!  They, too, suffered from what Dr. King called “the Drum Major Instinct,” the desire to be first, at the top of the heap, leading the parade.  In fact, many of the problems of the world—all kinds of violence and exploitation, from the oppression of Blacks in the USA to the slaughter of people in Vietnam—could be traced to that instinct.

That instinct is still strong today.  It manifests itself in the widening wealth and income gaps in this country, in the hyper-partisanship and dysfunction in Washington, DC, and in the clericalism that is a significant root of the sexual abuse and other crises in our Church.  It is exploited in anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.  It is part of the ideological foundation for the campaign to “Make America Great Again.”

Dr. King wanted people to remember is that ambition itself is not a bad thing.  He also recognized that an instinct is difficult if not impossible to extinguish.  It can, however, be redirected.   Jesus admonished his disciples that if they wanted to be great, it would need to be on terms other than those of the world.  Instead of lording it over others, they must serve.  If they wanted to be drum majors, they must be Drum Majors for Justice, calling and leading others to the greater realization of the kingdom of God at the center of Mark’s Gospel.  Instead of walking over others, they would need to walk with and behind them as servants. 

Part of our mission as Capuchins and friars is to be Drum Majors for Justice, calling and leading our Church, city and nation to a realization of God’s kingdom in conversion of minds, hearts, policies and laws to better recognize the human dignity and further the human and civil rights of people on the margins of society.  That’s what St. Francis of Assisi did with the lepers, who were quite literally as well as socially relegated to the society of his day.  As Franciscans, we are also called to be “drum majors from the rear,” to follow and walk with people on that pilgrimage. 

We give thanks for the example of Dr. King and we pray for the grace to follow his prophetic example. –JC