Swearing Oaths in Secular Society

This post was originally published as ‘Should Christians Swear Oaths on the Bible?’ at the Bible Society of Australia’s Eternity News on July 4th 2013.

A mild furore erupted this week over federal MP Ed Husic’s decision to be sworn in to his new Cabinet position with one hand on a copy of the Koran. According to reports by ABC Online and the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Husic’s decision was labelled by some as ‘un-Australian.’ One person quoted in the SMH article said: ‘Our allegiance should have been to Queen and Country first, Ed. That means saying the oath on the holy Bible not the Koran.’

Christians should rightly be disturbed by the racism and Islamophobia that is patently displayed in these responses. But perhaps more worrying is the attitude towards the place of the Bible and Christian belief in our national culture. If we read these responses in reverse, the logical implication is that the Bible and Christian faith are ‘Australian’ and part of a nationalistic package of loyalties to Queen and Country.

Australia is clearly not a Christian nation anymore (if, indeed, it ever really was). In addition to the Muslim representation of Ed Husic, our national parliament boasts avowed atheists like our most recent former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Liberal MP Josh Frydenberg, a man of Jewish faith. When Ms Gillard was sworn in, she was sworn in without a Bible, and, while remaining Australia’s only openly atheist Prime Minister, she follows in a line of openly agnostic ones, including Gorton, Curtin, Whitlam and Hawke. Does the fact that these elected leaders do not profess a Christian faith mean they are not fit to represent Australians?

It would make little sense for these people to swear an oath on the Bible: if such a practice is meant to remind the oath-swearer what holds them to their oath, then to swear on the holy writings of a faith to which one does not assent would be a strange thing indeed. We would rightly call into question the validity of that person’s oath. If we want to hold Cabinet members to their oaths, and we believe people of many faiths may represent us, then they should be free to choose on what basis they make that oath.

The dangerous implication of this kind of thinking is that the Bible is the servant of the nation. American theologian Stanley Hauerwas (among many others) has written extensively about this well-known feature of American politics and religious life, most recently in an article at ABC Religion & Ethics. The idea that the Bible might serve as some kind of nationalistic emblem might be attractive to some, but it couldn’t be further from how the Bible speaks about Christian faith lived out in the nations of the world. In fact, from a theological perspective, we could see swearing on the Bible in a secular government as a deeply subversive act.

To swear on the Bible is subversive because the kingdom we find out about in its pages is not allied with any worldly nation. During his trial the Lord Jesus tells Pontius Pilate ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36). The Apostle Paul tells the church in Philippi, believers in a city known for its pride in Roman citizenship, that they are ‘citizens of heaven, from where we eagerly await a saviour’ (Philippians 3:20). Peter tells his readers across the Roman province of Asia to think of themselves as ‘strangers and foreigners’ (1 Peter 2:11), calling them to live in a way clearly distinctly from the cultural practices of the nation of which they were a part.

This clear theme in New Testament thinking (echoing the words of the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah to Israel in exile) shows us that the kingdom of God, of which we Christians are part, is to be our first allegiance, above and beyond any nation we live in. So anyone who takes the Bible seriously and swears an oath on one can only make a very limited oath: I will serve Queen and Country, but only insofar as they are acting in a way that honours the God of the Bible.

If this is true, anyone who asks our politicians for fidelity to Queen and Country first should be deeply concerned to see someone swearing on a Bible, for Queen and Country can never be the first allegiance of such a person.

But is it right for Christians to take such an oath? I know of a number of Christian people who, when taking oaths in our courts, have refused to swear on a Bible. They have done so in deference to Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all’ (Matthew 5:33-34). Instead, Jesus says, ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no’ (Matthew 5:37).

Jesus’ expectation is simply that we will do what we say we will do. Perhaps our desire to have our cabinet ministers swear by some book or another is an indication of the deep cynicism of our society: because we cannot trust someone to be true to their word, we seek to hold them to some other standard. Maybe politics reveals to us just how hard Jesus’ teachings can be.

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