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April 08, 2015

Oaths and Oathers

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Oathing: the taking of an oath. Are people who "do" oaths called Oathers?

At HumanRelationsPittsburgh, blogger Helen Gerhardt asks, what's an oath for? What good is an oath? which is prompted by her taking an Oath to serve as a Pittsburgh CHR committee member. (@PghCHR)

What a superb question, opening for examination a huge and too often unquestioned social construct, persisting the in background. Which makes me wonder, are oaths different in other cultures? But for now, what is a Pittsburgh oath? And perhaps, why?

There are folks who abstain from Oathing. Quakers and Mennonites decline to make an oath, because they place great value on telling the truth in the first instance and believe an upgraded level of oathed-truth, or truth-plus, to be unnecessary. (If I have this wrong, please correct me). They are, you might say, "loath to oath".

In the last few centuries we've seen changes. Literacy. The Reformation. The Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution. The Information Revolution. World Wars. Oathing predates all that.

With anything that predates the intermediate and current eras, we can ask: what was it when it started? Distinctly, what is it now - because those are two different things.

Let's say a thousand years ago, an Oath was a confirmation, a meta-layer that could mean two things: it could be an assertion of truth, or a promise of future behavior - both upon penalty of death. If you took an oath and broke it, death was on the table. Taking the oath added credibility to a statement, and added accountability to performance.

There are New Testament verses recommending against Oathing, what's up with that? Two of the four Christian gospel-writers urged people to not take oaths. Mathew 5:34-37 says,

But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

James 5:12 brings,

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.

In the modern Capitalist regime, how do ersatz-human Corporations take oaths? In many ways contracts take the place of oaths; contracts are an improved version of oathing.

Of course, in our most-recent events we see that Contracts are not binding and the penalties only apply to the un-lawyered; USAir voided its labor contracts through bankruptcy law, and USAir failed to provide the retirements it had agreed to provide to its people.

What is society's current response to a person that breaks an oath? Executives that void labor contracts? Greek elections that seek to void financial oaths? We hail the executives that void existing contracts as "saviors", which perhaps is a moral hazard.

Marriage oaths: completely unenforceable. No social stigma (at least, in the old ways) involved.

Sworn (oathed) testimony, which is to say human testimony, is imperfect. Witness the people getting out of wrongful imprisonment, and the larger group falsely convicted.

I'm inclined (at this stage, open to learning) that an oath is only as good as the person who gives it. It adds a sense of gravitas to duties and statements. In that way, the Mennonites and Quakers have it right (no surprise): a truthful person's oath is unnecessary. The gospel writers have it right: a guarantee of future performance in a chaotic world is merely aspirational.

But if an oath is only as good as the person who gives it, I feel so good about Helen's oath and I know that it is solid gold.


Reddan said...

Speaking entirely off the top of my head, one difference betwixt oaths and contracts is that an oath is self-oriented; "I have made a commitment to do X." Contracts are generally conditional: "I will do X if you do Y."

Or, another way to look at it is that oaths are kept (or broken) primarily as a result of one's own character; contracts may be voided by the choices of others.

Helen Gerhardt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helen Gerhardt said...

Van, thanks for your wonderful, thoughtful response both here and at over at the new blog. I am in fact writing from the perspective of an oath-breaker. And then also an oath-keeper. A breaker-keeper. No gold here, but a learning curve, and the hard-learned experience that we ALL need good systems of mutual commitment and accountability to carry through on anything larger than our own limited selves.

Helen Gerhardt said...

And I just saw this post over there on the left of your blog, from Ta-Nehisi, that seems to fit so well with what I feel. Virtue, honesty, oath-keeping are not so much about inherent character or goodness as the continued caring and will toward skill, the determination to keep trying to do better with each other, to learn, practice, over and over and over again together, in relationship, despite our many failures. No vacuum of perfection exists but better and worse behavior with each other most certainly does matter and my own oath now sets a standard toward which I strive.

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