Monday, October 11, 2004
"But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your "yes" be yes and your "no" be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation." (James.5.12)

This weekend i finished listening to the audio version of the Autobiography of George Fox (courtesy of the wonderful Christian Classics Ethereal Library), all told more than 16 hours worth of rich material for reflection while mowing the lawn and doing other yardwork. Though i wonder about some details of his theology, one cannot dispute Fox's dedication to Christ, or his impact on his 17th century world, including the fledgling settlements in America that i've been reading about in Michener's Chesapeake.

One of the major issues that confronted Fox and the Quakers was their refusal to take oaths of allegiance to the government. We are repulsed today by images of terrorists beheading their victims: in this time as well, changing political fortunes often lead to similar (and worse) barbarities against those associated with the former government. So there was strong motivation to declare allegiance under oath, and Fox and numerous of his followers spent much time in dungeons for their refusal to swear, some even being executed.

The words of James above, echoing those of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.5.33-37), seem clear enough: as translated in the Contemporary English Version, "When you make a promise, say only "Yes" or "No." Anything else comes from the devil." Fox often challenged his judicial opponents to show him where Jesus or any of his apostles commanded the taking of an oath.

We're all familiar with the modern courtroom drama that begins with "place your right hand on the Bible: do you swear ... ?" I've never been called upon to testify in court, but isn't this practice in direct contradiction to the words of Christ printed in that same Bible? Certainly a different legal standard applies: if the judge or lawyer suspects prevarication by the witness on the stand, they are reminded "you are under oath," and (unlike the lies of ordinary life!) you can go to jail for lying under oath. Fox's witness has caused me to wonder whether a Christian ought properly to refuse to take such oaths, in obedience to Jesus. (Note further the Oath of Allegiance to be taken by those seeking naturalized US citizenship: "I hereby declare, on oath, ...")

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