The topic of promises and oaths has been part of my world over the last few months. Invariably it has been to do with organisations such as the Sea Cadets, Guides, or Scouts which have oaths or promises in which God is mentioned and whether ‘God should remain’. There are a variety of issues to consider here – the history of the organisation; the wording itself; whether there are alternative wordings available; whether the organisation receives money from the state; matters of conscience; questions about offense (who is offending whom?); and so on. I’ve heard some lively and determined points of view!
So I was interested to hear that the Magistrates of Eng-land and Wales recently rejected a proposal to end the swearing of oaths on the Bible and other holy books in the courtroom. The proposal to scrap holy books was based on the apparent lack of meaning the action seemed to have for people today. The idea that the Bi-ble or God would make a person more truthful and less likely to lie is obviously dependent on whether the per-son has any links to the Bible or God. Nevertheless since there are alternative oaths for non Christian reli-gious believers and atheists are already allowed to affirm they will tell the truth, the magistrates have retained the practice and the Bible stays. An argument for the practice remaining which I hadn’t considered was that swearing on the Bible is a recognised way for a religious person to reinforce his/her evidence to the court and others.
Here, I must admit ambivalence about the whole swearing on the Bible thing. I remember the first time I was in court and the judge said to me – knowing I was a pastor – as I entered the witness box, ‘I suppose you’ll have no problem with one of those [the Bible]’ and while I did promise on the Bible to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I was also thinking that, as a follower of Jesus, a simple ‘Yes, I’m telling the truth’ should suffice (Matthew 5:33-37).
Words are tricky things. They are powerful (possibly the most powerful thing on the planet) and yet can be hard to both trust and verify. That’s when they become dangerous. We’re aware of spin, deception, lies – usually the hard way – so we want to anchor words – or more importantly the speakers to consequences for the syllables they say. My concern, I suppose , is that in the subtext for having people swear on the Bible is a hope that God will get the liar if we can’t. So the context is one of fear of punishment. I just don’t like God ‘used’ in the way.
The Reformation of the 16th century – Martin Luther and 95 Theses and the desire to reform a church – came about precisely because of a growing awareness that fear of God doesn’t comfort troubled souls, doesn’t really amend lives, and only partially brings about peace and justice in the world. Only love brings about new beginnings, hope, and strength to speak and life truthfully. The Reformation was very much about discovering that love – God’s love for us – is God’s starting point in speaking and dealing with us. Sure Jesus was punished on the cross but what put him there was love.
So with some historical licence in the telling of the tale (no one is 100% sure of the ‘punch line’), this truth of the Gospel of Jesus, saw Luther in 1521 at the Diet of Worms defend his writings and the material he wouldn’t budge on as his truth – based on Scripture as his conscience heard it – here I stand, so help me, God. Lutherans, at their Confirmations, and hopefully each day take a similar stand – God loves me and I want to follow my Lord Jesus each and every day – and yes, God, please help me. — GS