CONCERNING THE USE OF OATHS
"Do you swear on the Bible?" Although my family was not particularly religious, we held this question in very high regard. Under normal circumstances, we made use of white lies, lies of convenience and a host of other lies (as the occasion demanded). However, if someone grew suspicious, we would receive a skeptical glance and hear this grave and solemn inquiry, "Do you swear on the Bible?"
This question changed everything. It placed us in the context of something supernatural. At least as children, we felt compelled to tell the truth.
This is exactly how an oath is supposed to work: Swearing an oath removes you from the normal context of life. Based on the assumption that people are prone to falsehood, an oath commits us to a higher standard. It proclaims, "This time, I am telling the truth."
We ask people who testify in court to swear an oath. There's the Boy Scout Oath, the Hippocratic Oath, and the Oath of Office. Whenever we want a guarantee of truthfulness or responsibility, we ask people to swear an oath. We want to know that this time they really mean it.
Although oaths are common in our society, Barclay points out that Christ has spoken forcefully against their use. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said to people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oath you have made to Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all.... Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No,' 'No.'" The meaning of this statement is so self-evident, so plain, that Barclay expresses shock that a follower of Christ could ever pronounce any oath "with a quiet conscience."
For Barclay, the boundaries are clear. There is a clear prohibition: "Swear not at all;" and an equally clear admonition: "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes...'" In other words, we are plainly told what not to do and we are plainly told what we should do. There is no gray area either way. Barclay finds himself astonished that the great majority of Christians have grown accustomed to swearing oaths. Not only do people swear in civil matters (such as when they testify in court or verify the accuracy of their tax return), but Christians have even taken up the habit of swearing over spiritual matters. Barclay notes the irony of priests binding themselves by oath "to interpret the holy scriptures according to the universal exposition of the holy fathers," when these very same 'holy fathers' (the leaders of the church during its first 300 years) denounced the taking of oaths! The pious churchmen are swearing to uphold the standards of those who refused to swear!
For Barclay and the early Friends, it made sense to have only one standard for truth. In other words, those who follow Christ should be so committed to the truth, that all words are spoken with the same commitment and sobriety that others only muster under oath. Remember, oaths owe their existence to the presumption that people are normally prone to falsehood. It is only because we believe people are prone to lie that we want to know this time they are telling the truth.
For Friends, our commitment is to always tell the truth (and thus do away with the need for oaths). Truly, we should live in simple relation to the truth, so that our 'Yes' always means 'Yes' and our 'No,' always 'No.' This is the standard Christ expects from us.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. Do you think that civilization needs a certain amount of falsehood in order to grease the wheels? Can we really get along without a few white lies now and then?
2. Almost all of our justifications for falsehood have to do with the lies we need to tell. Are there times when you would rather hear lies?
3. Recently, a player in the NBA was disciplined for refusing to stand during the national anthem. As a Muslim, he said that he felt opposed to the idolatry of that practice. What do you think Barclay would say about the national anthem? How about the Pledge of Allegiance? What do you say?
4. Quakers have won the right not to swear in before giving their testimony in a court of law. Instead, Friends can simply "affirm" that they are speaking the truth. Is this distinction important? Why or why not?
Continue to Proposition Fifteen (pt. 5)