We will take a quick look at the state law about swearing oaths to assess the impact today.
First we need to look at the definitions. Swearing is the verb, the action, and the oath is the noun, the result of swearing. Thus one swears an oath.
Secondly, let's look at the standard and traditional wording used and manner of administration of oaths.
Section 3 of the Oaths and Declarations Act 1957 (NZ) states:
Form in which oath may be administered
So we see from here that oaths involve an appeal to divine authority -- the use of the name of God and of the bible -- and are intended to create binding obligations or declarations.
Now let's look at the state response to Jesus's prohibition of oaths:
Right to make affirmation instead of oath
The state's response is semantic move of no legal effect. The state treats the issue of refusal to take oaths to be a matter of private or spiritual or religious belief, rather than as a form of legal or real spiritual or economic power against the power of the state itself. This can also be seen by the way the state law treats religious belief:
Oath not affected by absence of religious belief
So the state's stance is very clear: believe whatever you like, and we can even accommodate your religiously-motivated refusal to use particular words in particular ways, but the mechanisms of legal and state power are unchanged, and we expect Christians to participate and engage with coercive state power in exactly the same way as anyone else, that is to say they must accept and act on it as legitimate and unchallenged, and furthermore this shows there is no conflict between Christianity and state power and legitimacy. Jesus is Lord and so is Caesar. But Jesus rules the world of private, religious, personal and emotional beliefs, not the world of money and power and law and justice and public policy.
However, we shall examine the nature of oaths more closely to see what is their real nature and the kind of power that they invoke and uphold.
The state-created technical right to affirm instead of swear identifies the problematic elements of oaths that drove the objections and that is inherent in oaths (refer section 4, Oaths and Declarations Act 1957):
- The 'words of imprecation', and
- The 'calling of witness' (i.e. the calling of God as witness)
The words of imprecation refer to the calling down on the jurat (the person swearing the oath) of a curse.
What is the nature of the curse and the purpose of using God as witness? Although on its face it would appear to be a reference to God's punishment after death, supposedly as a motivation to tell the truth and to discharge one's obligations, the reality is legal, political and ideological:
- The one who swears and oath, and yet gives false testimony invites the court to impose generally severe punishments on him.
- The calling God as witness is not only an appeal to God and his ultimate knowledge and justice, but the giving of divine imprimatur on such earthly punishment and enforcement action against him in this life.
- Thus the oath purports to bring God's ultimate sanction to the earthly litigation, prosecution, judicial and coercive action involved in the promises or proceedings. And administration of the state power apparatus here on earth.
What if this were exactly what Jesus came to challenge and overturn? A closer look at his life and teaching reveals exactly this: Jesus came to challenge the coercion of the court and to teach a non-coercive alternative. Jesus came not to die as the ultimate sacrifice to the myth of redemptive violence, but to shatter that myth by giving his life to ransom us from slavery to the cycle of coercion and violence.
Swearing oaths is an essential input to the power, ideology and sanction of social coercion and the power of the state. The state doesn't mind if we change the words from swear to affirm, because the state is not about words but about power. The state is the systematic and organised institution of coercion that is upheld both by propaganda/ideology, and by the application of coercion. So the state doesn't mind if a good minority of the people want to change the wording of their coercive power exercise instruments, so long as they have the same coercive effect the state loses nothing! In fact, by making coercive instruments compatible with the teachings of Jesus on oaths, the state neutralises its enemy.
So what is the real use of oaths today? What could not be done without the oath? What occupations would be off limits to the one who would not swear?
Firstly and most obviously the one who will not swear an oath cannot file a law suit against anyone for anything. Filing law suits requires swearing affidavits giving evidence of the complaint and presenting that evidence as sworn testimony in open court:
Witnesses to give evidence on oath or affirmation (Evidence Act 2006)
The High Court Rules require cases to be heard and decided in accordance with such witness evidence given under oath.
Secondly, one who will not swear an oath cannot take up many occupations involving state power. These include: