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Review of Warren R. Copeland, Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland

Author: Nathan Bills
Published: August 2012

MD 3.2

Article Type: Review Article

Warren R. Copeland.
Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland
Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009. 138pp. $20.00.

There has been a recent spike in literature that aims to inform Christians and churches how to engage in ministries of justice. To that corpus Warren Copeland contributes an easy-to-read, compelling exposition of his triumphs and struggles to implement justice in the public square. Copeland is Professor of Religion at Wittenberg University (PhD in social ethics from the University of Chicago) but more importantly has served several terms as mayor of Springfield, Ohio. He writes with raw honesty about his Christian commitment and public service, and how he wrestled throughout his career as a public servant to maintain integrity between the two. Copeland sees the challenges that cities face as fundamental moral issues not to be ignored by Christians. Politics, for the author, is a way both to express faith and also to test it.

Copeland first narrates his journey as a local politician and then mayor of his city. In his retelling he delivers to the reader an education in urban sociology, planning, and politics; thus, he helps his audience understand the interdisciplinary agility a public official must exercise and the inherent difficulties in attempting to act for the good of all. As a social ethicist employed by the civitas, Copeland strove for a principled approach in his service, but he admits that rare was the occasion when a decision was clear cut. Indeed, his nuanced discussion of political realities and the disparate values involved is a significant reminder that justice-seeking in a pluralist society often requires careful discernment.

In a second section he offers a four-pronged ethical framework for understanding cities, again illustrating the complexity and different values inherent in the administration of justice in city life. Copeland names three principles that guided his civic service and decision making: respect for the integrity of all people, concern for the disadvantaged, and commitment to the common good. These three principles feed into the larger goal of increasing freedom and diversity in the city, two components Copeland regards as crucial for just cities.

In his third and final section, the author outlines a political agenda for creating equity in the city. He advocates for the “3 A’s”: access to good jobs, high quality amenities, and affordable housing. He follows this discussion by detailing “3 S’s” for preserving the diversity within cities: space, safety, and quality schools. Copeland is impressive in the ease and scope of laying out his reasons for his policy proposals and demonstrating measurable results from his experience in Springfield. Time and again his discussion interacts with urban and political theory, providing valuable insight from a policy perspective on issues that will be familiar to anyone working among the disadvantaged in urban America.

One walks away from this book appreciating both the possibilities and problems of working for justice as a Christian in the public sphere. In an age when many seem to have lost faith in the political process, Copeland provides imagination and inspiration for a way forward for people of faith. Furthermore, he is quite realistic about the limits of church or any volunteer organization to tackle effectively the large scale issues in urban America: “Voluntary organizations provide a human touch and often a spiritual dimension that may be missing from government programs. However, we are not about to meet the huge needs of our urban communities through volunteerism. The decimal point is simply in the wrong place” (124). For Copeland, love of neighbor means some level of commitment to those structures that direct public life. Insofar as the reader agrees with Copeland’s faith in the goodness of public life, he or she will find this book a candid but hopeful portrayal of justice seeking at the crossroads of urban politics, sociology, planning, and Christian activism. It is a welcome primer for any Christian considering political activism in an urban context.

Nathan Bills

Doctor of Theology Student

Duke Divinity School

Durham, North Carolina, USA

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