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Act Justly: Practices to reshape the world by Samuel Wells

by
25 November 2022

Robin Gill examines a clear argument on justice, ending a trilogy

THIS book follows Samuel Wells’s short books Walk Humbly and Love Mercy, all inspired by Micah 6.8. It focuses in the first half on the rule of law (which he terms “constructive justice”), and on social justice in the second half. As the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and, previously, Dean of Chapel at Duke University, he is well placed to address these important issues.

He typically writes in clear prose, with an ordered framework and in a didactic style with few footnotes. This style sometimes makes it difficult to assess his many passing claims, not knowing their source, or the evidence and arguments behind them. He also refrains from summarising the several competing theories of justice or the extensive biblical evidence about justice. His overall argument, however, is clear.

He explains: “You can have all the laws and rulings in the world, yet still be a long way from justice. That’s because without the rule of law, good judgements are useless. Practising justice means that everyone, including monarchs, law-makers, judges and the military, is subject to the law. But it also requires that you have a disciplined and trustworthy police force, able to apply the law, and a culture of respect for the law among the general public.”

He refers to several recent incidents where this has not been so, and finally looks to “church” (without an article) to challenge and remedy this. For him, justice and worship are intimately connected.

These are challenging claims, similar to the “witness theology” of his mentor at Duke, the influential Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, about whose work he has written extensively elsewhere. It gives churches a central part in fostering justice — something, perhaps, that a church in central London might do well. But it is a demanding task in a society that is only marginally religious, and in which churches are themselves accused of harbouring deep injustices.

It is also a little surprising that so many of his examples are drawn from fiction — modern novels and films — rather than from the wealth of experience among the homeless and desperate of St Martin’s own professional staff.

None of this undermines the significance of Dr Wells’s trilogy. It is only to say that there is more hard thinking to be done on Micah’s crucial theme of “walk humbly, love mercy, and act justly” as it might relate to modern Britain. This trilogy makes a useful start.


Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, and Editor of
Theology.

 

Act Justly: Practices to reshape the world
Samuel Wells
Canterbury Press £14.99
(978-1-78622-457-6)
Church Times Bookshop £11.99

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