Stephen Ojapah MSP
“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vowed. But I say to you, do not swear at all, not by heaven, for it is God’s throne, nor by the earth,’ for it is his footstool” (Mathew 5:33-34). We are gradually coming to the end of my two month long reflection on the Gospel of Mathew Chapter 5. There are profound insights in that chapter in the life of a Christian. In the earlier verses, Jesus talks about the beatitudes, poverty, purity, suffering, peacemaking, mourning, meekness, mercy and persecution (Mathew 5:3-11). He equally speaks about the saltiness of his followers (Mathew 5:13). The Salt element can be likened to the Christian’s participation in public and spiritual affairs were their presence adds value and quality to people and issues in the society. Jesus enjoins his followers not to break the Law. He expects that at all times the bar should be raised and Christians are to encourage people to uphold moral standards in every circumstance.
Today’s reflection, Jesus builds a wall around oath-taking: “Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your Yes mean Yes and your No mean No. Anything more is from the evil one” ( Mathew 5:36). There is a recent comic video that has gone viral. It is about a politician and a Chief Judge who is supposedly administering the oath of office to the politician who just won an election. Instead of the traditional use of the Bible or the Quran, the Chief Judge used an iron to administer the oath. He said to the politician “Hold this, this is iron and repeat after me”. Afterwards, he proceeded in this manner: “In the administration of my duties while in office, if I steal any public money let Ogun kill me”. Nigeria is presumably a religious country if seen through the prism of Christianity and Islam. It seems that as Nigerians increasingly embrace either of the two religions, the same Nigerians in equal measure appear to be less trustworthy. Our forebears in this country never practised any of the two religions, yet in comparison to present adherents of both religions, our ancestors seemed virtuous in keeping to their word. Ironically, even without knowing Christ as we claim to have known him today, our ancestors exemplified in their lives the teaching of Christ on truthfulness and honesty. Their “yes” was their “yes’ and their “no” meant “no”.
Traditionally, an oath is either a statement of fact or a promise with wording that relates to something considered sacred as a sign of verity. A common legal substitute for those who conscientiously object to making sacred oaths is to give an affirmation instead. As a matter of fact, even when there is no notion of sanctity involved, certain promises said out loud in ceremonial or juridical purpose are referred to as oaths. The word come from Anglo-Saxon āð . It refers to judicial swearing, solemn appeal to deity as a witness to the veracity of the truth or the promise being made.
Oaths usually a cultural significance especially a deity is invoked. The essence of involving a deity is an invocation of a divine agency to be the guarantor of the oath taker’s own honesty and integrity in the matter under question. By implication, this incurs divine displeasure if the oath taker fails in his or her sworn duties. It implies great responsibility and attention in the performance of one’s duty since a deity has been called upon to be the witness and guarantor. The concept of oath is deeply rooted in the Jewish culture like other cultures in Ancient Near East. For instance, in Genesis 8:21, when God swears that He will “never again curse the ground because of man and never again smite every living thing”. This repetition of the term never again is explained by Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac Commonly known by his acronym Rashi a biblical commentator. It serves as an oath where God swears by Himself to keep His word. In biblical tradition, the first human being known to have taken an oath is said to be Eliezer. He was the chief servant of Abraham. His master asked him to promise that he would not take a wife for Isaac from the daughters of Canaan, but from among Abraham’s own family.
The foundational text for oath making is in Numbers 30:2 “When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.” For its part, Islam takes the fulfillment of oaths extremely serious: “God does not hold you responsible for mere utterance; He holds you responsible for your actual intentions. If you violate an oath, you shall atone by feeding ten poor people from the same food you offer to your own family, or clothing them, or by freeing a slave. If you cannot afford this, then you shall fast three days. This is the atonement for violating the oaths that you swore to keep. You shall fulfill your oaths. God thus explains His revelations to you, that you may be appreciative. Quran Chapter 5: 89.
I don’t know in detail the mind of Christ when he said: “Let your Yes be Yes.” It can, however, be inferred that Jesus had in view the slippery character of the human person particularly as exhibited in his encounter with the Pharisees. Jesus lived with the Pharisees, the Scribes and the religious leaders of his time. He constantly had backlashes with them, accusing them severally of double standards. Jesus did not take it kindly in his depiction of the Jewish authorities as men who did not always honor their words since in many instances, they promised what they could not fulfill. In contrast to the Pharisees and the Scribes, Jesus enjoined his followers to ensure that their word was their bond. In other words, if their word could not be trusted, meaningless and invalid was their oath even if they swore by the all the deities in the world.
All of us at some point or the other have taken oaths to do one thing or the other: religious leaders, public servants, elected politicians, medical doctors, military personnel, and married people, etc. Two things easily surface during oath-swearing ceremonies: (1) the easiness of oath-taking and (2) the difficulty of keeping what is promised. As human actions do not always march words, it means that the taking of oath must be done in good faith as a result of a properly formed conscience. Oath of any kind imposes a heavy moral obligation on a person. That obligation is graver for politicians who have access to government resources that ought to be judiciously managed for the commonweal.
For that reason, does anyone honestly trust the words of Nigerian politicians? Who among them can truly say he or she is a person of integrity, whose word is his or her bond? For the ordinary Nigerian who easily swears “in the name of God” or “Allah”, does he or she know the gravity of calling the divine deity to be a witness to his or her lies? It should not surprise anyone if Nigerian documents like passports, certificates, credit cards, etc are viewed with suspicion outside the country. Even the official government seal on a document is not often considered as a guarantee of authenticity. What is at stake is the moral integrity of a people. Therefore, let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no”!
Fr Stephen Ojapah is a priest of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He is equally the director for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism for the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, a member of IDFP. He is also a KAICIID Fellow. ([email protected]