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The Bible is for reading, not swearing

Chris Duckworth

Please allow me a moment of silliness. If Jesus were to arrive at the West Entrance of the Capitol for this year’s Presidential Inauguration, I doubt that Chief Justice John Roberts would instruct President Barack Obama to place his hand on Jesus’ head while taking the oath of office. That is not how we would treat the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ. Instead, we would stop to worship, listen to, and follow Jesus, rather than use his head for a swearing-in ceremony.

Yet, we do much the same thing when we use the printed Word of God in civil swearing- in ceremonies. The Bible is the written Word of God that bears witness to the Living Word of God. It is filled with stories and teachings about the God of our salvation. The Bible is to be read, its poetry is to inspire prayer, its message to be proclaimed, and its challenging teachings to be wrestled with. When this Word of God is publicly read and preached, God’s Spirit moves in those who hear it.

So why use the Bible as part of civil swearing-in ceremonies? Oaths have been around since ancient times, and they often included language calling on a higher power — the heavens, the gods, a particular deity. The classic Hippocratic Oath, for example, calls on “Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses” as witnesses of the promises being made. The use of the Bible in oaths is an extension of this ancient tradition of swearing by a divine power.

When a president swears

On April 30, 1789, George Washington swore the presidential oath of office standing in front of New York’s Federal Hall, with his right hand placed on a Bible. The words of the oath are prescribed by the Constitution, but the use of the Bible is not. Nonetheless, the use of a Bible at Presidential swearing-in ceremonies has been a part of nearly every Presidential swearing-in since 1789.

Many who swear on the Bible likely don’t think much of it, since taking oaths in such a manner is a long-established tradition in our culture. And many more may see it as an act of faith, a chance to call on God while making a significant commitment to public service.

Yet our Christian faith itself might question such a practice. Jesus teaches, “Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37 CEB). James 5:12 offers a similar teaching.

The call of Christians is to be truthful and loving in all they do. Adding God’s name to a promise — or including the gesture of placing a hand on the Bible — does not make the promise more binding, nor does it make the promise more likely to be kept. In fact, I fear that the use of the Bible in swearing-in and oath-taking ceremonies borders on the superstitious, as if the Bible is a talisman guaranteeing the veracity of that which is being sworn. We are fallen, sinful creatures. No words of ours will enact such a guarantee, nor will the presence of the Bible.

The Bible wasn’t written to be used ceremoniously in civil oaths. Instead, the pages of the Bible call out to be read, its words marked, its stories and teachings learned, and its truths inwardly digested. Hands don’t belong on top of the Bible for the sake of swearing oaths. Rather, hands belong under the Bible, cradling it and holding it open so that its words can be read and its power proclaimed to all who have ears to hear.

The Rev. Chris Duckworth is senior pastor of Grace Lutheran Church on the East Side of Saint Paul. He lives in Saint Paul with his wife, Jessicah, and children Talitha, Cana, and Naaman.

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