Oaths and Inflation of Words


On January 20, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, and like his predecessors, he placed his left hand on a Bible promising to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Those words are required by the Constitution (Article II, Section 1, Clause 8). Scripture is not. This might explain why as George Washington was making his way to the balcony for his oath, someone was sent to grab the nearest Bible at St. John’s Lodge because in this meticulously planned ceremony — as the first, the planners knew it had the power of precedence — they overlooked the Bible. The King James bible — apocrypha and all — was put in Robin Livingstone’s hand, who opened it randomly and private citizen George Washington officially became the first president of the United States with his left hand falling on Genesis 49:13:

“Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon.” 

The tradition of validating an oath with a Bible goes back to English courts, where a witness’s testimony was made admissible only after he swore “to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth,” with his right hand raised to prove he didn’t have a criminal record and his left hand binding himself to the blessings of God for honesty, and curses for lies. More binding, lies after that oath can be prosecuted as perjury. The Bible elevates words into strict accountability.

There is an irony to this because the Bible contains a story of Jesus warning against oaths. In his signature Sermon on the Mount, he says, “do not make any vows!” then dismisses the popular vows of his days — swearing by earth, heaven, the city of Jerusalem and not even, “‘By my head!’ for you can’t turn one hair white or black.”

His rant was not against oaths but what makes oaths necessary. We swear because our daily words lack the natural weight of truth. Swearing ups the ante, raises the trustworthiness of our words by creating accountability. But it’s a system that can be gamed. Clever ways are created to wiggle ourselves out of the truth and promises of our words. So a witness, after swearing to tell the whole truth, tells piecemeal truth as prepped by a lawyer to benefit the case — Bill Clinton’s infamous, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” comes to mind. As a kid, did you ever say, “This time, I swear by my mother and my father” with your fingers crossed behind your back? Oaths create inflation of words.

So Rabbi Jesus proposes a simple solution, “Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’” The way to protect truth and be trustworthy, is to let every word be what it means.

Washington respected the power of words. To let his yes be yes, he practiced….

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