Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Do you solemnly swear... ?

I have been thinking lately about Jesus' admonition in Matthew 5 about not swearing oaths, and the extent to which Quakers take it. The NET Bible version of this passage is:

5:33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 5:34 But I say to you, do not take oaths at all – not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 5:35 not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 5:36 Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. 5:37 Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one.

To me, it seems to me that Jesus is speaking about telling the truth, and having to use an oath to say "This time I really *am* telling the truth". The problem I have is that we use oaths for more widespread uses than just "I am telling the truth." For example, if you participate on a jury in Dekalb County, Georgia, you take an oath. You are not swearing to tell the truth, you are swearing that you will listen to the testimony and put all prejudice aside. Now, if this oath ends with "so help me God", then I think it definitely conflicts with Jesus' admonition, but what if it doesn't?

When a witness is sworn in, he or she is asked to raise their right hand, and then asked "Do you swear or affirm that the testimony you give is the truth" with no "so help you God" at the end. That seems a little gray to me.

What about the oath of office for an elected official? Here is the U.S. Presidential Oath of Office as specified by Article II, Section I of the Constitution (which calls it an "Oath or Affirmation"):

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

There is nothing that says you have to raise your hand or place it on the bible (there's an irony!). Would that make a difference? I was a little curious to see if either of the two Quaker presidents (Hoover & Nixon) opted for "affirm" instead of "swear". Interestingly, Hoover opted for "affirm" and was the second president to do so. Franklin Pierce was the first.

The reason this gives me such trouble is that once you get out of the realm of oaths as a statement of "I am telling the truth", it is hard for me to distinguish between that and a verbal contract. As far as I know, Quaker's don't have a problem with entering into contracts, so I am wondering what guidelines to use.

It feels to me like placing your hand on the Bible or saying "so help me God" is definitely out, but I am a little unsure about the phrase "do you swear". I think that even if the oath begins with "do you swear or affirm", if it ends with "so help me God" then it would still be the kind oath that Jesus is talking about. In fact, I think that if it is any promise that "*this time* I will behave differently than I have in the past" then it seems to be wrong. When it is a declaration that one understands and will follow the expected procedures, it seems more like a verbal contract than an oath, regardless of whether it is called an oath.