Seven score and three years ago, Abraham Lincoln stood and repeated his oath of office. His election four years earlier was plenty contentious, “all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it.” As he took the oath the first time, “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”
His victory drove South Carolina and then the rest of the South to declare war on the Union to protect that peculiar and powerful interest. The intervening four years were hard on all, and as the Union’s fortunes lagged, so did his chances at re-election. Having turned the tide on the battlefield, bested his rivals in the campaign, and looked forward to victory against the rebellious states, Lincoln had a choice to make. He could have visited the same insults he had received back on his enemies in the Union and in the Confederacy.
Instead of lashing out, of turning their tactics back on his foes, he took a different approach, both in policy and in rhetoric. He said of the factions in his divided nation:
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
So he sought to reach across to those he disagreed with, to work with them in turning the two Americas into one.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
This concluding passage is perhaps the finest statement of Christian charity that can be found. Here was a man who held tremendous power, having seized more than the laws of man had granted a president, and he turned that power toward healing, turning the other cheek to his attackers, and loving not just his brothers, but those who raised arms against him.
Forty years and one day ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed that same nation, still divided over questions of race, class, and social standing, questions which haunt our political discourse today as well. Like us, and like Lincoln, King was confronted with a tragic war that many wise people had struggled to avert, but which a “peculiar and powerful interest,” geostrategic power for us and King, forced upon an unwilling public, tearing a nation at the seams.
And Dr. King took aim directly at that impulse for power, addressing himself to the Drum Major Instinct, the desire we humans have to lead a parade, and not simply to follow it. “There comes a time,” King warned, “that the drum major instinct can become destructive.”
And that’s where I want to move now. I want to move to the point of saying that 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.…
And then it does other things to the personality. It causes you to lie about who you know sometimes. There are some people who are influence peddlers. And in their attempt to deal with the drum major instinct, they have to try to identify with the so-called big-name people. And if you’re not careful, they will make you think they know somebody that they don’t really know. They know them well, they sip tea with them, and they this-and-that. That happens to people.
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.
Politicians, by nature, walk the knife’s edge, since you can’t want to be a leader without harnessing this instinct, and it can lead to great harm or great good. This boastfulness, and the tendency to lash out at your enemies, seeking to rise above them by knocking them down rather than raising yourself up, is the siren song of politics. But the instinct need not be harmful, and to show why King turns to the example of Jesus dealing with his disciples. Rather than chastising two who surrendered to that prideful instinct:
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. 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. 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.”
And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
And so, having located this meaning of greatness, King set out his hopes for how we would judge his greatness, and how, perhaps, we can judge the greatness of others, even the candidates before us on this Super Tuesday:
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
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. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.
I read those lines, and I can’t help but think of Abraham Lincoln, who died healing our fractured nation, and I can’t stop thinking of a certain community organizer turned state legislator, who now sits in the Senate and hopes to lead a parade to the White House.
There are those who say that Obama’s rhetoric is too nice, to polite to his enemies. There are those who say he’s all rhetoric and no substance. But I don’t think substance is measured in whitepapers. It’s measured in wise decisions and exceptional ideas. Neither Abe Lincoln nor Martin Luther King had much use for whitepapers, nor did they have much patience with voices of division. They did, however, have patience with their enemies, and through that patience, succeeded.
I wish I could say that King’s lines all applied to Hillary Clinton as well, but I cannot, in good conscience, say that I think she “tried to be right on the war question.” On that, she gave in to the drum major instinct, as she did in the early nineties on health insurance. She got to thinking more about keeping up with the Joneses than with what was right, and what she stood for. When Obama was thinking about future elections, and still spoke out against the war, she was trading away her integrity to feed her drum major instinct. She was not a drum major for peace, and so we are in a sad state, where the only thing outdated about this passage from King’s speech is the reference to Vietnam:
But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.
God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are 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.
As we select our next leader, we have to ask him or her to truly lead, and to take this situation as seriously as Lincoln and King did. Because King called for something not so far from Lincoln’s fond hope “that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” Yes, our nation is divided; there are not just two Americas, but dozens, aligning and realigning in myriad battles. Forces of division will exploit those factions under any president.
But a great leader has to be able to rise above that. The Bush years should teach us that the President has to speak for and to the entire nation. We can’t make America better by repeating the failures of this President and his lackeys, by emphasizing waging pitched war with ourselves. I vote for Barack Obama today because I share his hope, and King’s hope, and Lincoln’s hope, that through human decency, and the power and goodness of America, we can heal these wounds. It won’t be easy, but we can do it. Yes we can.