“See, the virgin will become pregnant
and give birth to a son,
and they will name him Immanuel,
which is translated ‘God is with us.’”
Matthew 1:23 (CSB)
“The divine compassion places God in the midst of the human predicament.”
Richard Lischer, “Anointed with Fire”
Santa Claus, uh, go straight to the ghetto
Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto
Tell ’em James Brown sent you, huh!
Go straight to the ghetto
“Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto”, by James Brown
I was nine years old in the kitchen. The day started off like every other Christmas Eve. The smell of Macaroni and Cheese and German Chocolate cake ticked my nostril and moistened my mouth. I hear a familiar voice singing on the radio: “Santa Claus goes straight to the Ghetto… Tell him James Brown sent you.”
There he was, The Godfather of Soul himself asking Santa to prioritize the Ghetto. He didn’t want Santa to go first to the sprawling suburbs that grew fat from white flight. But go to the places created by lines from a racist’s red pen. He wanted Santa to make those who are last in America, first for Christmas.
My African American parents heard this song as children growing up in the 1960’s. Upon its release in 1968, it resonated in a community toiling for fair treatment in a nation built by the blood, sweat, and tears of its ancestors. It provided a glimmer of joy to communities where the smell of smoke was still close by following the riots in response to King’s death earlier that same year.
There is one who doesn’t have to be told to go to the Ghetto; his name is Jesus the Christ.
When we consider the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, we see God actively identifying with the poor as He works to save the world from its sins. Jesus is sent straight to the ghetto to give rise to a Kingdom where entry is gained by his blood and faith in Him. And those who are last in the ghettos of this world, by faith in Him would be made first.
This is good news for the poor—today.
Matthew 1 reveals an episode where an angel quoted Isaiah 7:14 to Mary, telling her about the importance of her pregnancy. Immanuel was never intended to be Jesus’ name; it was his functional role. “God is with us.” In the incarnation of Christ, God knelt and kissed humanity and the God-man Jesus was born into our time and space. This was good news to Jewish people who were living under the thumb of the Roman Empire.
God’s action was one of identification by proximity. As the writer of Hebrews suggests, God would become well acquainted with humans in our predicament because of Jesus. But who does God, through Jesus, identify with? Yes, he identifies with all people because all people grapple with a birth defect called sin. Yes in the gospel narratives, He seems to identify with the least, the last, the left out, and the unlikely—the poor and despised of the world.
Isn’t the location of Jesus’ birth evidence? He was not born in the palace of King Herod, nor in a bed at the Ritz Carlton. Jesus was born in an insignificant place called Bethlehem, wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger, “because there was no guest room available for them” (Lk. 2:7). It’s no wonder He began his ministry in Luke 4 with the words from Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the good news to the poor” (Is. 61:1).
While we are situated in a nation that struggles to utter the words “Black Lives Matter” – a place where the rich pad their pockets and balk at the notion of a livable wage – the world never has to say that those deemed last in our world matters because God demonstrated it in Jesus Christ.
Jesus came, and comes, straight to the ghettos.
Watson Jones III is the senior pastor of Compassion Baptist Church on Chicago’s Southeast Side. He is currently pursuing a PhD in African-American preaching and sacred rhetoric. He and his family reside on Chicago’s South Side.