by Wren Taylor
Oath -- Noun (pl. oaths)
1. A solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding ones future action or behavior: they took an oath of allegiance to the king.
a. A sworn declaration that one will tell the truth, esp. in a court of law.
2. A profane or offensive expression used to express anger or other strong emotions.
Last issue’s musings on inaugurations and initiations led me down the path to consider oaths. Both experiences usually require an oath. When the words of an expected oath are known beforehand, does the candidate actually weigh them and consider whether or not she or he can truly deliver what is being promised? Or since the root of the word, auguare - to augur, indicates that the outcome is open to interpretation, does that mean that the words spoken in an oath are also open to interpretation?
When I think of the presidents that have served so far in my lifetime stretching back to Eisenhower, I wonder whether phrases such as “faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States” or “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” is open to the interpretation of the individual. When those men spoke these words, were they thinking the same thing? Probably not. Nor do I expect my own connotation to be the same.
Granted, when a candidate for initiation comes to the place where an oath is required, that person usually has little or no idea what is involved. We don’t make a habit of offering scripts of the ritual prior to the event. Even so, I have never seen anyone choose not to take an oath and halt the ritual. Looking back at my own initiatory experience, I can’t say that I was in enough of a cognitive state of mind to comprehend the details of what was happening around me and to me. Are oaths extracted during stress or duress binding? Even if the candidate is there of their own free will and has prepared for the experience?
This leads me to wonder whether people go through the motions and speak the words required to get what they think they want. Like notches on the bedpost, I’ve seen folks attempt to collect initiations like trophies. When confronted as to why this is a good thing to do, the person usually shrugs and points to an honest if not misguided quest for knowledge. I have to wonder whether any of the oaths taken in said pursuit pose any contradictions. Not only that, but if the intention is honorable as in the thirst for knowledge, is it okay to promise whatever is required to achieve that end?
Here’s another thought: Are you freed from an oath if it was taken so long ago that you don’t remember the particulars? One warm and lazy afternoon, I was engaged in casual conversation with an initiate of a different tradition. As we sat in the grass, he toyed with a bug and a twig. As you can guess, this activity ended with the bug’s demise. Even though it had been over a decade since his initiation, I witnessed his oath to not knowingly cause harm to the living. Did he forget? Do bugs not count? Should he have been cognizant enough in that moment to stop the proceedings and say, “Hey, y’know, I’m not certain I can make that promise.” How is it that a priestess of a different tradition remembers so long and so well, and the initiate does not?
The previous example involved an adult. What about children? My earliest memories of school include the Pledge of Allegiance. Most adults can’t help but giggle at the cuteness quotient of a six-year-old mangling the words. Can a child fathom the meaning of this oath?
I don’t recall receiving an explanation; it was part of the morning routine. We participated with no thought involved. Teacher said we had to do it. Am I to be held accountable for this oath spoken in front of countless witnesses countless times without fair understanding? I will also admit, that by the time I entered high school, it never occurred to me to question the words nor the practice. In this day and age, I have heard of some parents objecting to the Pledge of Allegiance, and their children being allowed to sit quietly while the others participate.
That being said, can an oath be undone when enlightenment or evolution alter a person’s heart? If a person arrives at the point where there are clear and valid objections to the concepts behind an oath, can it be broken?
Now let’s go back in time prior to the women’s liberation movement and look at wedding vows. These were usually prescribed by the denomination. Writing your own vows, which constitutes an oath, was rare if not unheard of back in the day. I shudder to think how many women readily agreed to “obey” and “’til death do us part”. In fact, I shudder when I recall how my thankfully long-gone lover hissed the word “death” as he spoke his wedding vows. Is it oath-breaking if the bride becomes the battered wife, and leaves to save her life?
Given the divorce statistics, there are many broken oaths out there. For as many church weddings that I have attended, I’ve never been to one where the oaths have been undone. Some how, it doesn’t feel right to leave all of that energy floating around out there ungrounded. Can or should an oath be broken when a situation changes? Can or should another oath be taken to cancel the first one? Do you tough it out hoping things will straighten out eventually? What if someone’s life is in danger? A bug’s? Yours?
Also consider the Hippocratic Oath. It is my understanding that this is no longer required in all cases, but set that aside for a moment in the spirit of discussion. The “do no harm” clause is cause for ethical debate.
Let’s say we have a premed student, who in the beginning is adamantly against abortion and assisted suicide. In this case, the student understands that the Hippocratic Oath will be required to graduate and work as a doctor. The average number of years invested in becoming a doctor is roughly twelve. A person can do a lot of growing and changing in that amount of time not to mention the amount of debt incurred in procuring the education.
Let’s say that the life experiences of our student brought about a reversal in thinking regarding both issues. Here we are looking at graduation day and directly into the maw of a huge debt. The generally accepted interpretation of “do no harm” is that abortions and assisted suicides are harmful. Does our student cross fingers behind the back and take the oath anyway to pursue a life’s passion and be in a better position to pay off the debts? Does our student recognize that this is an oath that cannot be honored, pick up a shovel and join a construction crew?
Here’s another scenario: Loose Lips Sink Ships. It’s relatively common knowledge that many initiatory oaths contain passages wherein it is sworn that initiates’ names and other personal information will not be divulged. This is because people practicing some alternative religions have lost jobs or homes or even had children taken away from them. The pages of history are filled with tales of even worse consequences.
Picture Chatty Cathy, who took such an oath, but in the interest of name-dropping, shared oath-bound information freely. The excuse was, “I didn’t mean to do it! I wasn’t thinking!” If the intention to break an oath is not there, is it oath breaking? Is oath breaking due to negligence pardonable? The damage is still done.
My mother-in-law needed a new computer, but her husband was being uncooperative. In a playful spirit, I composed an oath for him to take stating that he would indeed help her acquire the machine of her dreams. Even though it was all in good fun with a purpose, I was serious and so was he. Laughing, he raised his hand, spoke the words, then point blank told me that it wasn’t the first oath he would break and wouldn’t be the last. Scoundrel that he was, I have to admit that he was being forthright and honest. More honest than some oath-breakers I have experienced.
Are oaths a matter of personal integrity no matter who witnesses them? Is there such a thing as Oath Police? Should there be? Can an oath be enforced if it is coerced? Can an oath be taken back? Private or public, an oath has something that sets it apart from an informal utterance. Has that gone by the wayside today? Is it okay to conveniently forget when the drama has passed? What if someone unintentionally breaks an oath? What if that oath breaking causes harm to another? Serious harm? Are oaths open to interpretation? By whom?
The English language being confounding as it is, I think it rather curious that the definition of “oath” also includes a negative usage. The Oxford English Dictionary offers: an appeal made lightly …….a careless use of the name of God or something sacred. Call me a cynic, but the words “lightly” and “careless” really hit me as the norm.