The United Nations pursuit of closing the gap between the poorest and the wealthiest is a long-standing and elusive goal, always out in front and always outpacing structural efforts to achieve it.

I do not think that this is reason to abandon it, but we live in an immediate world which acts frequently without reflecting.

And so, in the spirit of counting the costs, Christians must step back and ask a prior question: “What would achieving this equity entail?”

The presumption here of the United Nations, as I understand it, is that this is a goal set out by nations, affirmed by their citizenry across borders and implemented locally as appropriate. And on its face, this is not a bad aspiration!

The temptation for Christians, however, is two-fold: one named by civil religion, the other by Christian nationalism.

The first temptation, that of civic religion, is to describe all that churches do in terms of social goods: that churches exist primarily as social service agencies and should order their teaching, giving and institutions toward that end.

In this temptation, churches exist in their worship of God to love their neighbors, and they exist in their gathering to be able to cultivate that love of neighbor well. And so, whatever restrictions are necessary for churches to endure toward that end are good and right, so long as the goal is just.

But this describes the justice which Christians have in mind too modestly. The kingdom coming on Earth as it is in heaven is comprised – in one breath – of forgiveness, full bellies and worship.

It is bringing together God and all that God has made, without forgetting that the people of God remain weird and strangers among their neighbors. It is feeding the hungry and sending away the rich empty handed so that all might repent and see God.

Civic religion is happy to take Christian giving but without any sense of repentance that might make laws more just.

The second temptation, that of Christian nationalism, is to say that civic religion is too weak and that all the world should be the church, or at least amplify explicitly church values by force.

The most recent version of this came to us on January 6, with prayers and prophecies in the Senate chambers, but the more subtle form is just the old-fashioned Christianization: that the church exists not simply to serve the poor, but to Christianize structures of distribution, to create a world in the image of the church.

But this describes the justice which Christians have in mind too strongly. The kingdom coming on Earth as it is in heaven is one which is borne witness to by Christians not in binding their opposition but in praying for them, not in belittling them but in forgiving them.

The fullness of the just world which Christians crave is one which the bureaucratic and power of Christian nationalism can think of only in uniform fashion: all or nothing, all Christianized or total secularism.

The justice of the Christian nationalist cannot tolerate the weakness, humility or fragility of Christian prayer, loving only the kingdom and glory it promises.

The cost of the justice that Christian nationalism promises is that Christianity is really nothing other than power relations, with the church’s humble reality sacrificed for vaguely Christian sentiments dressed in political clout.

And so, the Christian desire for justice for the poor turns to a different path: that of local commitment and sacrifice.

In Acts 2 and 4, we find the repeated image of the church worshipping and gathering up its resources in just distribution, of learning the apostolic teaching and of everyone having what they needed.

It is enough – indeed, more than is frequently happening! – for churches to root themselves in their spot and to work for justice where they exist, inviting the poor in to share whatever resources we have, and in doing so, to be the outpost of the kingdom of God in local ways which both civic religion and Christian nationalism cannot comprehend.

The offering which the Corinthian church takes up for the Jerusalem church is of this kind: a transnational and yet local giving which attends to the wounds of the world, transforming the relations within which it rests and loving the world without becoming the state.

After months of darkened church doors and empty pews, this vision of Scripture seems too audacious and perhaps too exhausting. But this is different than saying that it is not true.

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series appearing this week for the United Nations World Day of Social Justice (Feb. 20).

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