The sex part was almost perfunctory. First, we were asked to call upon the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly to begin steps toward a social statement on "Justice for Women." It passed without dissent and without comment, except some unnecessary words from the original sponsor. On one hand, you could say that this reflects a shared understanding that women are treated unjustly, in America as in most of the world. Good for us! On the other hand, though, it raises the question of how much need there is for a teaching document. Shouldn't we just move on to doing things? (Like putting new energy behind our Domestic Violence Task Force? I'd swear we had one.)
But of course, women haven't been sexually exciting since the 1970s. Err, that's not what we meant. Sorry, honey. We just meant that, in our recent experience, the real action has been all about the gays.
Going in, we had been offered two motions, which -- when you cut through the parliamentary language -- presented a simple choice. First, we could signal our approval of the ELCA's proposed social statement on human sexuality, and ask the church to develop "resources" -- including liturgies -- for recognizing same-sex unions, and rostering pastors living in those unions. Or else, second, we could do absolutely noting of the kind.
The two motions came from almost comically predictable corners: one from the Manhattan Ministerium (with at least one certain abstention), another from the ALPB board of directors (or nearly so). We'll spare you what little suspense there may have been: the first resolution passed, thus mooting the second.
We at the Egg are less interested in the resolutions than the debate. We have attended these shindigs since 1992, and become accustomed to a certain pattern. A motion is presented, and spoken to eloquently; it is opposed, also eloquently; it is defended, somewhat emotionally; it is attacked, passionately. Up to this point, it has been a pretty good debate, churchly and even hinting at theology.
But then things get ugly: slurs and innuendoes begin to fly. A fat layman from Long Island tells us that we have betrayed God's Holy Word. A black woman with a collar wags her finger and accuses us of insensitivity to racial minorities. Some well-intentioned woman in a denim wrap tells a story about her brother dying of AIDS. Father Haddock tells us that we are all Stalinists. Faces are red, tempers flare, and many of the next few speakers hyperventilate.
Oh, and in most years there are a series of substitute motions and amendments, including things like "a friendly amendment to strike everything after the word 'resolved.' " Every vote is tense and ugly, with boos and catcalls. We spend a lot of time on our feet being counted individually in the beloved "standing serpentine vote." And then the pro-gay resolution passes, typically by about 70-30.
But this time, the debate was different. A few of the usual speakers stood up, but they seemed lacking in passion. Amendments were offered, then voted down with little debate. We weren't called Stalinists, we didn't hear any heart-wrenching but off-topic anecdotes. It was as though we went through all the parliamentary motions, but did so at top speed, rushing toward a foregone conclusion.
In seventeen years, Father A. does not believe he has ever seen an assembly so ready to commit itself. Or so resigned to its fate, depending upon your perspective.
Yes, you say; the sex was finally good. But what about the violence? Glad you asked. Going in, we were presented a resolution calling upon the President and DoJ to prosecute the people who developed the policies permitting (if not encouraging) the torture of prisoners in American custody. It was a pretty damn good resolution, too, from the Egg's perspective. These are bad people -- yes, David Addington, we mean you -- who have shamed our nation and richly deserve punishment.
But it may have overreached a bit, in the sense that churches calling for legal prosecution has a kind of Inquisitorial tone. A substitute motion was offered from the floor (and we confess that, somewhat reluctantly, we helped create this one), declaring our solidarity in Christ with all victims of torture, and including all nations to come clean about torture so that reconciliation could begin. To some observers, it looked toothless; to others, it looked a little more theologically-informed and a lot likelier to pass. (Our personal sop-to-conscience was a tacit hope that the process of reconciliation might in some countries, such as ours, include legal action against the architects of torture).
Again, it passed. But again, as with the matters of sexuality, the process was more interesting than the conclusion. Because this time, the crazies did come out of the woodwork. A layman defended waterboarding as "non-hurtful." A retired military chaplain objected that we were not in solidarity with all victims of torture, which raises an interesting theological point: Did Christ suffer only for the innocent? Does the compassion of God -- and therefore of God's Church -- extend only to those who repent, or also to those who continue in sin? The answers seem cut-and-dried to us at the Egg, but apparently not to our chaplain friend, who was in any event polite enough in his objections to eschew his customary coprological vocabulary. A number of people attempted to argue that if torture had actually occurred, it was in the past and we had agreed not to do it any longer, and therefore shouldn't ask any questions -- a logic so convoluted and fallacious that it defies calm analysis.
And then came the golden moment when Father Haddock rose to the mike, and argued that the resolution "attempted to criminalize political activity." Never mind that, by amendment, we had specifically agreed not to ask for criminal prosecution. Never mind that torture isn't "political activity," it is, by its nature, a military activity (and under military law, a crime). Because you know what kind of people criminalize political activity? Stalinists! Yes! There -- he said it. We were all bunch of Stalinists.
Never mind that Stalin organized torture on a mass scale, and was never made to answer for his crimes precisely because he commanded a political system that lacked the will to accuse its own leaders, and that this was just the opposite. He'd said it, and we could go home satisfied, feeling that we had shown our voting members a good time as promised.
Anyway, the resolution passed as amended. It must have seemed close, because there was a standing serpentine vote -- and thank heaven, because it doesn't really feel like a synod assembly without one. But it wasn't really all that close -- something like 60/40. Still, the debate had been exciting.
All of which leads us to the interesting suspicion that sex isn't really sexy anymore. It may be that the arguments over homosexuality (like those over women which preceded them) have become so routinized, on their way becoming so nearly obviated by generational changes in the cultural discourse, that they have lost their capacity to inspire true wackiness. Oh, there are still deep disagreements, and there will surely be lasting divisions, and to be sure there will always be work yet undone -- America still hasn't ratified the ERA, either. But it may be that we have passed the stage at which the arguments are florid and theatrical, and at which their eventual outcome is in serious question. (Just as we have passed the point at which Ronald Reagan could threaten that an equal rights amendment would require unisex toilets.)
So what does get the institutional juices flowing? Apparently, crimes of violence committed by the government in its prosecution of a foolhardy war. So is violence the new sex? Or is sowing division among the churches just one more way in which Mr. Bush's war is analogous to Mr. Johnson's?