A Time to Embrace (William Stacy Johnson) -- A Review
A TIME TO EMBRACE: Same-Sex Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics, 2nd edition. By William Stacy Johnson. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012. Xxii + 368 pages.
At some point in the past I picked up a copy of the first edition of A Time to Embrace (2006), but for some reason I didn’t get around to reading it. Then, more recently Eerdmans sent me a review copy of the second edition and I put it aside. It’s not that I’m not interested in the topic of same-sex relationships, but for some reason I put it on the shelf and moved on to other books. I must confess that this was a major mistake. A Time to Embrace is one of the most compelling discussions of same-sex relationships I’ve come across. While it’s not a short book or even an easy read, it may be the most comprehensive text available on this increasingly important topic facing church and nation.
A Time to Embrace is but one of a number of excellent books that have been recently published dealing with this topic. Justin Lee and Jeff Chu have written extremely personal accounts of what it means to be gay and Christian in America, and these books should be read by all who struggle with whether or not the church should not only welcome but affirm members of LGBT community. Justin’s book (Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate focuses more closely on his own experience, whereas Jeff takes us on a tour of America, asking whether Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. Justin’s book might be the best place to start, with Jeff’s coming in as an important supplement, because they personalize the story. Once one has understood the personal dimension, then it’s easier to wrestle with texts, traditions, and laws. Another book that covers some of the territory found in A Time to Embrace is the recently published book by my friend Steve Kindle, Marriage Equality; Why same-sex marriage is good for the church and nation, which offers an impassioned defense of marriage equality. Steve’s book deals with texts and church related issues that will challenge Christians sitting on the affirmation fence. You can, then, add A Time to Embrace to these riches.
The author of this book, William Stacy Johnson, teaches systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is also an attorney. In this book Johnson brings together these two disciplines and addresses an issue that vexes the church. When Johnson wrote the first edition, only Massachusetts and Vermont had embraced marriage equality. Since then more and more states have moved forward on this issue, many others seem poised to do so in the near future. While he wrote prior to the recent Supreme Court decisions, he lays out the legal frameworks that led to these decisions and those that will come in the future. It is in this area that Johnson reports the most changes from the first edition.
The book is divided into two parts – Religion and Law and Politics. Part two is extremely helpful in setting out the arguments for and against marriage equality, while coming down solidly in favor of same-gender marriage. Attempts to prohibit same-sex marriage stand as challenges to the nation becoming a truly welcoming democracy, one where all citizens are allowed to experience the fullness of rights guaranteed to them. He asks this pertinent question:
“Do we really want to construct a society in which the majority forces members of one group to live their lives as second-class citizens? Is this what democracy is supposed to be about? The truth is this: if we are to have a welcoming democracy, we will need to want a welcoming democracy – and want to do what it takes to bring it into being. (p. 237).
What kind of nation do we want to be? How should our laws reflect that vision? That is, what does it mean to be equal and receive equal protection under the law? I hear people talk about “special rights.” When did receiving the rights guaranteed to all other citizens become “special rights?”
If the nation must ask this question, so must the church. If the church wishes to be a place of welcome, what does that require of us? That is the question posed by the book’s opening section.
The book begins by providing the reader with a helpful historical introduction to other legal cases, including interracial marriage, the way in which marriage has been understood historically and culturally, and a conversation about the nature of same-sex attraction. Having set the foundations to the conversation, Part One lays out in three chapters the arguments of the non-affirming church, the welcoming-affirming church, while in a third chapter offering a detailed description of what he calls “consecration of same-sex love.” What is so helpful about these chapters is that Johnson makes it clear that there aren’t just two positions – affirming and non-affirming. There are, in fact gradations of opposition and support.
On the non-affirming side the options range from outright prohibition, in which advocates would bar all same-sex unions – both on the part of church and state. This is the position taken by the most vocal opponents of marriage equality. But there are two other positions that while not affirming same-sex unions either choose to tolerate them or accommodate them. The last position sees same-gender attraction as part of the tragedy of sin, and that because it is either impossible or inappropriate to force those who experience same-gender attraction to become “straight,” the church and the state should accommodate this reality by providing either civil unions or marriage. It’s not God’s ultimate desire, but as with divorce and remarriage – it’s part of human experience. As he explores each of these positions, he looks at how they understand creation, reconciliation, redemption, and read Romans 1.
Just as there isn’t just one form of non-affirming church, there is more than one form of being affirming. Here the positions range from legitimation to consecration. Those who embrace the idea of legitimation want to welcome gays and lesbians into the community and seek to make sure they’re not discriminated against or treated unfairly. The second position calls for the church to celebrate same-sex unions as a God-given good. Those who embrace liberation, take an even more activist position, equating societal attitudes toward gays and lesbians to other social evils that need to be remedied. There is, of course, overlap, but each of these positions emphasize a different element of what it means to be affirming.
The fourth position, which Johnson calls consecration, focuses on the need for providing the “full religious blessing of same-sex unions.” Of the positions described this fourth position, which is the one Johnson is advocating for, is the most intriguing and I think the most helpful to the church. If the first three positions can be described as in some way being welcoming and affirming, with this fourth position Johnson suggests that the church should become welcoming, affirming, and ordering.
In providing this third element, Johnson suggests, the consecrationist position can be an effective bridge from non-affirmation to affirmation. He writes that consecrationists agree with celebrationists that the church should affirm same-sex desire, but they would also argue that such desire should be “monogamously ordered within the covenantal community of the church” (p. 109). He notes as well that the consecrationist position affirms the non-affirming positions concern about moral order. That is, it recognizes that not every form of sexual expression is a positive good, but that the most appropriate place for sexual expression is a committed covenanted relationship, which is what marriage is intended to provide. By embracing same-sex marriage, the church provides the same support for same-gender relationships as it provides for more traditional relationships. That is, as he notes, “supporting exclusively committed gay unions represents not a departure from our biblical and theological traditions but rather a deepening of them” (p. 115).
In support of this consecrationist position, Johnson brings us into a conversation about what marriage is intended to provide. Many opponents of gay unions suggest that the church and state have a responsibility to provide for a properly ordered context for procreation. Since this is not possible for gay unions, then they shouldn’t be provided. The problem with this understanding is that there is no requirement for opposite-sex couples to bear children. If that were so, then why would couples who no longer able to bear children (post-menopausal) be allowed to marry? Obviously marriage and family has to do with more than procreation. Looking to scripture, Johnson suggests that marriage is rooted in three elements – companionship (it’s not good to be alone), commitment, and community. With regard to the third, Johnson writes that marriage “serves a community-building function.” That is marriage is about kinship and integrating the couple into a wider community of support – whether they are gay or straight.
We have reached a tipping point with regard to same-sex relationships. The law is changing, and is doing so with great rapidity. The question is then – how will the church respond? If we’re concerned about morality, about family, about community, then it seems incumbent upon us to make provision for our LGBT brothers and sisters to find a home and a context to serve God faithfully. With this in mind, Johnson offers us an in depth, thoughtful, deeply spiritual, and in my mind richly biblical resource that can help form that response. I would recommend that every pastor and church leader read this book. That is because as we move forward in discerning God’s direction, I believe this book will provide us needed wisdom for the journey.