Melissa Kirkpatrick (reviewer)
by William Stacy Johnson
Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 390 pages
The stars align, it seems. Reading William Stacy Johnson’s “A Time to Embrace” during the week the Supreme Court is hearing two cases, one involving California’s Proposition 8 and the other the Defense of Marriage Act, gives the reader a crash course in the history and the challenges same-sex relationships present to our courts and culture.
The first edition of the work, published in 2006, was written ahead of recent court decisions and rapid changes in many state laws that are allowing some level of recognition for same-sex relationships. Such deep shifts in the culture, in our churches and in the legal and political environment of the day make this new edition that much more important for an understanding of the debate.
Johnson lays out the historical context of same-sex relationships from what we know of the practices in Rome and in Greece at the time of Paul, when such relationships were hardly consensual, to the scholarly work of the Middle Ages, where there is much evidence that profoundly close same-sex relationships (which may or may not have been sexual) went unquestioned by the church. What is clear in this history is that there was never a single way of approaching or dealing with same-sex relationships across time or place or faith.
Johnson develops a seven-fold spectrum for different views on same-sex relationships: prohibition, toleration, accommodation, legitimation, celebration, liberation and consecration. What follows is a learned analysis of theological positions and scriptural interpretations that have supported positions on loving, committed same-sex relationships along the spectrum he describes.
In the recent Supreme Court case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, Justice Anthony Kennedy remarked that if that law stands, “you are at real risk with running in conflict with what has always been thought to be the essence” of state power to regulate marriage, divorce and custody” (NY Times, March 27, 2013). Johnson helps us understand the courts’ struggles between rights of states to regulate marriage, the traditions related to marriage and the implications for children of same-sex marriage. For him, the final truth is “that there are no cogent legal arguments of a secular nature for refusing to grant some form of relationship rights to gay couples.”
Marriage, Jesus teaches, is not the end in itself, Johnson points out. “Family values” arguments have tended toward making an idol of marriage. In the reign of God, all traditional notions of kinship are transformed. In relationships free of exploitation, power struggles and abuse, we shine the light of God on one another. Being a follower of Jesus, says Johnson, has little to do with conventional family patterns and “everything to do with what and who one is living for.”
MELISSA KIRKPATRICK is director of education ministries at Manassas Presbyterian Church in Manassas, Va.