Milner Ball's extraordinary book, The Word and the Law, begins with a narrative account of "seven practices in law." The seven practitioners Ball brings to life for the reader share two powerful traits: they all, in quite different ways, use law to lessen the multiple sufferings of various communities of poor people, and they all, by doing so, strengthen the communities within which and for which they labor. The reader gains from these accounts not only a sympathetic understanding of the lives of seven lawyers, but a renewed sense of the possibilities their practices present. This can be put any number of ways. Perhaps most simply, Ball's retelling of these practices opens the possibility of finding in "legal practice" a vehicle for helping people, for attending with care to the needs of people, for making a change in the world for the better, for acting with compassion toward the end of social justice. These practices deserve our admiration, but they are by no means beyond our grasp. They are human-sized practices that suggest the feasibility, and not just the nobility, of a professional life committed to social justice.
Ball employs theological argument, literary interpretation, journalistic reporting, a good deal of personal narrative, and simply, moral reflection to engage the reader directly with both the seven practices and with the texts, biblical, literary, and legal, that he brings to the task of understanding. These meditations are overflowing with insight, suggestion, description, self-revelation, interpretation, and stones within stones within stones. While never sentimental, his meditations are truly heartening. They tell the story of one man's intellectual attempt to make moral and religious sense of his own life, and the lives of some people he admires, in law it is a story, and an intellectual journey, that is well conceived and well told.
In the remainder of this Review, I will comment very briefly on two of the theological themes that recur in Ball's meditations and note what I think are some possible connections between his theological arguments and some of our legal practices and habits of mind. Thus, in Part II, I will explore the possibility that the discussion Ball provides of the use of parables in the Bible, and particularly his challenging interpretation of a passage from the Book of Mark regarding the use of parables, might also shed some light on the use of narrative by critical race theorists, as well as some of the recent criticism that narrative jurisprudence has elicited. In Part III, I briefly suggest that the relation for which Ball argues between religion and Belief, or between religious practices and God's Word, may find an echo in the relation between law and justice. I hope that by drawing analogies between the theological arguments Ball makes about religion and the Word, on the one hand, and some of our contemporary debates about law and justice, on the other, I am not trivializing or grossly misstating Ball's positions. I must emphasize that the analogies I draw are mine, not his, and I apologize for any distortion in his positions that may result from my attempt to make a coherent claim that fruitful analogies exist.
35 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1101 (1994)
Scholarly Commons Citation
West, Robin, "The Word on Trial" (1994). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. Paper 660.