Thursday, May 11, 2006

Okay, So What About Swearing Oaths?

Last week, I met with the chairperson and several staffers from our county's MRDD Board. (In Ohio, each county has its own semi-autonomous boards overseeing local efforts to assist the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled and their families.)

I was discussing the possibility of my serving on the board. Because it's a governmental entity whose board members are appointed by a county judge, all the members take an oath of office.

"When I administer the oath," the chairperson asked me, "would you like to swear or affirm your agreement to it?"

It's a good question. One of our US Presidents, Herbert Hoover, was a Quaker who affirmed, but did not swear to faithfully uphold the Constitution. Quakers have historically taken the second commandment and Jesus' admonition not to swear as preventing them from taking oaths, whether to serve in governmental functions or to give testimony in court.

In light of my discussion of the Second Commandment from earlier today, it would seem that Mr. Hoover and his fellow Quakers had a point.

(An Aside: Richard Nixon, like Hoover, was raised in the Quaker Church. His mother remained a devout Friend all her life. But Nixon, in spite of his cultivation of Billy Graham throughout his political career, wasn't particularly religious. Having moved to New York to practice law after losing to Pat Brown in the 1962 California gubernatorial election, Nixon attended Norman Vincent Peale's Marble Collegiate Church, a Dutch Reformed congregation. His campaign literature and such sources as Joseph Nathan Kane's Facts About the Presidents always listed Nixon as a Quaker. But he had abandoned that denomination years before. This may explain why Nixon never hesitated to "solemnly swear" to uphold the Constitution. Questions about whether he actually did uphold the Constitution however, led to his resignation.)

My family attended a Quaker church when I was a boy and I deeply admire that tradition, one that's far more diverse than many people may realize. But I don't agree with them here.

In The Large Catechism, Martin Luther points out that it's to prevent the furtherance of lies that God forbids swearing, "yet Christ, St. Paul, and other saints took oaths." (Check out Matthew 26:63-64; Galatians 1:20; 2 Corinthians 1:23.) How to explain this seeming inconsistency about swearing? Luther says:
The explanation briefly is this: We are not to swear in support of evil (that is, to a falsehood) or unnecessarily; but in support of the good and for the advantage of our neighbor we are to swear. This is truly a good work by which God is praised, truth and justice are established, falsehood is refuted, people are reconciled, obedience is rendered, and quarrels are settled. For here God himself intervenes and separates right from wrong, good from evil...
Not surprisingly, I suppose, I think that Luther is right.

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