“My life is my music. They would beat me on the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn…they would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.”
That’s how Louis Armstrong — challenged by his critics to stand with other black men and black women as they marched for equal rights in the 1960s— justified his refusal to march in protests during the Civil Rights Movement. Armstrong pointed to the physical horrors that eventually became apparent to anyone who witnessed the treatment of the marchers at the hands of their tormentors — the deliberate, hateful abuse.
We are all better off that Louis Armstrong’s mouth and trumpet playing skills survived the tumult of the 1960s, but there is one part of his quote that is particularly revealing; that sheds more light than even Armstrong must’ve thought at the time. More than just painting a frightful image of bigotry, or than just illuminating the maliciousness of racism, Armstrong’s quote brings into focus the role that Jesus, his message and the radical, unapologetic love of which He was manifest play in our hearts as we navigate trying times. It brings into focus how desperately we need Jesus’ message of unapologetic love today.
Armstrong claims that “they would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.” He is absolutely right, because they did beat Jesus.
Jesus wasn’t black, and he wasn’t marching — at least not in a literal sense — but two thousand years ago, they beat, whipped and crucified Jesus Christ for the same reason they shot Martin Luther King Jr. down at a hotel in Memphis in 1968: He stood, unbound by fear, for radical, unapologetic love — the most radical message this world has ever known, and the one of which it remains the most afraid.
Radical, unapologetic love incites the maximum amount of fear in us exactly when it is at its most fearless. That’s Jesus, the moment before death — “It is finished” — and it’s King, the day before his assassination.* In the middle of the worst storms, love shows up; placid, cosmically peaceful, free of all fear, and thus, frightening us the most, exactly when it is at its most tender, merciful and clear-eyed.
It draws ire, confusion and fear from us because it says forgiveness when everything and everyone around us says punishment; because it says love when everything and everyone around us says fear; because it says turn the other cheek when everything and everyone around us says strike back; because it commands us to be free from our most comfortable and familiar shackles.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus spread that message of radical, unapologetic, merciful love as far as He could in his thirty-three years walking the earth as a man, teaching, “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” He taught us the Greatest Commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and that second greatest commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” He taught us to love each other as he loved us — unconditionally; with eternal mercy — and that “if you forgive others the wrongs they have done to you, your Father in heaven will also forgive you.”
It was the most radical message the world had ever heard, and it so threatened us, our established order and our very nature as flawed beings that we nailed him to a cross for it. Two thousand years later, we are still simultaneously in desperate need of and forever struggling to receive the message of love that opens with hope, good will and humanity, establishes justice and closes with mercy and grace.
It is a message that looks us in the eye and forgives us.
It is a message that teaches us that the exact moment we grow angry with others is the exact moment to forgive them.
It is a message that says to us you cannot make yourself perfect, so I have made you perfect because I love you.
It is a message that takes all of the values of this world and reduces them to rubble in the name of seeking something for our collective humanity that is higher and better; more beautiful and closer to God and His righteousness.
It is a message that takes each of us as we are, because we are, regardless of everything and anything else.
Unapologetic, unqualified love is the most radical force the world has ever known, and so men like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. are gunned down for demanding that we rise to that occasion of recognition of the humanity within each other, no matter how tempted we are to hate. It rouses such fear that the most fearful among us kill to contain it.
Unapologetic love is so radical that in so many churches across the world, Jesus’s Word is watered down, de-scandalized and arranged into a convenient us-vs-them, right-vs-wrong, good-vs-bad all-you-can-eat buffet of self-affirmation in order to entice — and not to frighten off — the congregation; in order to pat us on the collective back instead of calling on us to let go of such old, chained understandings.
Unapologetic love is so radical that when Jesus demanded that we love, understand and forgive each other no matter what, we mocked him, beat him and crucified him.
Nothing scares us more than someone who is completely free of fear, commanding us to love one another with radical, unapologetic, unqualified, unconditional love.
And so, no: Jesus wasn’t black and marching in 1968, but I bet the people who were sure felt like He was, and when their tormentors turned on the hoses, let loose the dogs and released the tear gas, He might as well have been. He would have suffered alongside the marchers, because their tormentors would have beaten Him, too.
It’s a new year, and yet still it seems we are surrounded by such old hate. It is far better to suffer for endless, unapologetic love than to thrive — or even just exist — while given to mere seconds of that tired fear.
*From “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” Martin Luther King Jr’s last speech, delivered the day before his assassination:
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”