Friday, February 1, 2008


Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.
These words were spoken by Jesus Christ, during the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33-37, wording from the New King James version, courtesy of The same idea is reiterated in James 5:12, again presented in in the New King James Version, from guess where:
But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No,” lest you fall into judgment.
Seems pretty simple. I can understand how Christians disagree on some things. For instance, Old Order Mennonites will not allow their photographs to be taken because they consider it a violation of the commandment against graven images (Deuteronomy 5:8, in the King James Version, which they would probably prefer):
Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth.
I don't agree with their interpretation, but I can see how they get there and respect their position. I can understand getting from "graven image" to "photograph", but I can't understand getting from "do not swear" to "swearing oaths is permissible".

I'm in the minority on this. I asked a Christian lawyer (no, not an oxymoron) if he's ever seen anyone refuse, on these grounds, to be sworn in on the Bible before testifying. He said he's never even heard of or considered such a thing. (He did, however, tell me that a judge would probably allow me to refuse the oath as long as I could cite the passages in question; I'd be hauled into chambers and severely warned of the penalties of perjury, oath or no oath, then allowed to return to the stand and testify).

I've seen Bible commentaries and footnotes in study Bibles that say these passages do not preclude being sworn in to testify in court, oaths of office, etc. I have never seen a basis for this claim beyond "because we say so". I'll take the clear statements of Scripture over the baseless statements of "scholars".

I've had a Christian argue with me that those passages can't mean that Christians can't / shouldn't swear oaths, because "I was never taught that growing up, and it just doesn't sound right to me." God help us if this is now the basis for Biblical interpretation among Christians.

I find it heartening that I've had some people agree with me. I've presented variations on this essay to different people, individually and in groups, several times over the past few years. Most of the professing Christians have agreed with the point, or at least realized that it was something they needed to think about.

This brings us to a True Story From One Of My Jobs. This entry is the first convergence of categories that I've written up; it probably won't be the last.

A while back, I had a civil service job. I started with a group of twenty or so other people. We spent our first day dealing with such formalities as an office tour, and learning to fill out our voluminous personnel forms. One of those formalities was the recitation of an oath of allegiance, with one hand on the Bible yet.

I really didn't want to cause trouble. At the time I really needed the job, and was worried about what would happen if I rocked the boat on my first day. But I knew I couldn't deliberately violate my conscience, so when my turn came I quietly took the Bible from the person administering the oath (all the new staff were in the room with us, and I wasn't doing this for show), opened it to one of the passages quoted above, and explained that I could not take the oath.

I told them that I found it particularly ironic that they were having people swear on the Bible to supposedly emphasize the gravity of the oath. We all remember that from childhood - a lie is one thing, but to lie after swearing on the Bible is in a whole other realm of wrongdoing.

However, it doesn't work. If someone doesn't believe (or at least respect) the Bible, then swearing on it means nothing to them. They would lie after making a Biblical oath at least as quickly as they would have lied without it. If, on the other hand, the person holds the Bible in esteem, then yes, swearing on the Bible may have more meaning for them. However, the same Bible they're swearing on says that they shouldn't swear on it (or anything else), putting the lie to their sincerity. Or, at least, to their knowledge of the Bible - which, again, reflects their true opinion of it.

There is a real paradox here. Swearing on the Bible shows that you don't care (or at least don't know) what it says about doing so, which means that swearing on it should mean nothing to you.

For a long moment, as the official debated what to do with me, I figured I had just lost my new, much-needed job. I was already trying to rationalize my way into backpedaling and taking the oath and justifying it to God later (that should work, right?). Then, a voice from behind me: "Excuse me... could I see that passage?"

One of my new co-workers had stepped forward. Not to stereotype, but I had a hunch from her long, tied-back hair and floor-length denim skirt that she had spent some time in a Pentecostal church or two. She looked over the passages, then handed the Bible back to the offical saying, "I won't be able to swear either."

I don't mind being out there alone sometimes, but it's awfully nice to have backup when I'm wavering. I will always appreciate God sending this lady to speak up with me.

The official was now flustered. They set the two troublemakers off to one side and finished getting everyone else to take their turns swearing in. After the others left, the official said that they just didn't know what to do with us. A few more bureaucrats were called in, and we dissenters were left to sit in a corner while they rumbled ominously.

We were finally asked to go catch up with everyone else to be dealt with later. I was allowed to twist in the wind for a few days, during which I was told by a few managers that refusing the oath was simply not an option, until finally I was summoned to the office of the HR director. They explained that they had made calls all the way up to Ottawa, and my refusal was unprecedented. I didn't, and don't, believe that for a second. I was quite sure - and told them so - that at least one atheist somewhere had refused the oath, albeit on different grounds (in addition to the Bible, I seem to remember the oath itself containing some vague religious language). Furthermore, I was quite sure that an atheist's refusal would quickly be accomodated, or there would be a major civil rights lawsuit with lots of publicity.

Before I was able to follow that train of thought very far down its track, the HR director pulled out a piece of paper headed, "Solemn Declaration". It contained much of the same wording as the oath, without using the words "oath" or "swear". It was essentially a contract stating that if I did any of several unpleasant or illegal things, I could be fired and prosecuted. I happily signed it, and went on to be profitably employed there for quite some time.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a birthday cake.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed your ramblings, Zirbert, and especially your pictures... do marriage vows count as oaths?