from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Why do we swear at all? 

this is crossposted at Dailykos and elsewhere. Please post any comments over there

From the King James Bible, Matthew 5:34-37:

But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

I have always been amused by Christians who insist that we swear upon a Bible, because it seems to be a direct contradiction of this command from Jesus. If one is to be insistent upon a literal interpretation of Scripture, why are some “Christians” selective in ignoring this clear command? And given that the passage I have quoted is directly from the Sermon on the Mount, is it not even that more binding upon those who would call themselves Christian?

I am aware that there are two oaths specified in the Constitution, that for the President in Article II, and that for other government officials in Article VI. Both have the option to swear or affirm. As a Quaker by choice I will affirm when required to in a legal proceeding, but I respect some of my Friendly brethren who will not even do that on the grounds that there is no distinction between being bound by oath or affirmation or not, one is still obligated to tell the truth, and that the passage from Matthew makes that clear.

We have had much discourse since Virgil Goode Jr. put both feet in his mouth with respect to Keith Ellison. I do not think I need to revisit an issue that has been the subject of multiple diaries and now one front-page story. I do think we need to consider the larger context.

I often wonder about the selective reading of the Bible. In that same Sermon we hear blessings upon peacemakers, and yet as a nation we are far too willing to criticize those who seek peace as either weak or perhaps even traitorous. Or perhaps even more appropriate in an age where politicians find it necessary tom publicly demonstrate their piety, and to end public addresses with “God bless the United States” or words to that affect, we should remember the introduction Jesus offers before teaching the multitude the Lord’s Prayer. Let me offer from the RSV the beginning of Matthew 6, several selected examples, beginning with Matt. 6:1
Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

And most appropriately, Matt. 6:6-7:
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I do not consider myself a Christian, even as I am a Quaker. I am more concerned about the here and now then I am about some ultimate future. I believe that I am responsible for my actions and my words. That responsibility does not change by swearing or affirming that my words and actions are true. I acknowledge the need for ceremonial demarcations, which I why I accept the idea of an oath or affirmation. I remain puzzled as to why someone who seriously accepts the words of Jesus as binding would ever swear, given the passages I have quoted, but I am not offended if that is how they choose to indicate a moment of especial solemnity. Given my strong support of free exercise it is not for me to deprive them of such an occasion.

I offer this not very well constructed diary not because I wish to challenge our traditional practices in this nation. Nor do I necessarily mean that those who pray in public and insist that people swear upon the Bible are necessarily hypocrites. I am puzzled at the lack of consistency, as I am by the insecurity I see in those who feel threatened when others of us choose to act in a way contrary to the choices they have made.

So I offer this diary as perhaps a means of provoking a discussion about the meaning of oaths, of public religiosity. I have no classes to teach today, as we are on winter break, so I will be happy to dialog should anyone choose to respond.

And if not, then may everyone find some peace and solace in this time of the year.
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