Why I Like Oaths

Solemn oaths today seem to strike people as some combination of quaint, naive, and constricting. They’re the kind of thing for a person long on overactive imagination and short on worldly experience. But personally, I like them very much. I find them to be an excellent vehicle for holding myself accountable. I also like them because I think there’s something inherently weaselly about human nature. If we don’t swear to something, we’re more likely later to revise our personal narrative to fit what we ended up doing. True, one can always re-interpret the oath, but that act should be, to a a person at very least trying to be honest, a sign he or she has gone astray.

Most importantly, I like that a good oath has specific points you can either uphold or fail to uphold, and again to anyone at least trying to uphold their word, success or failure will be apparent. For example, I’m very fond of the oath of the Knights of the Round Table from Le Morte D’Arthur (updated from Middle English to modern English):

This is the oath of a Knight of King Arth[u]r’s Round Table and should be for all of us to take to heart. I will develop my life for the greater good. I will place character above riches, and concern for others above personal wealth, I will never boast, but cherish humility instead, I will speak the truth at all times, and forever keep my word, I will defend those who cannot defend themselves, I will honor and respect women, and refute sexism in all its guises, I will uphold justice by being fair to all, I will be faithful in love and loyal in friendship, I will abhor scandals and gossip-neither partake nor delight in them, I will be generous to the poor and to those who need help, I will forgive when asked, that my own mistakes will be forgiven, I will live my life with courtesy and honor from this day forward.

So I can ask myself: Have I developed my life for the greater good, or have I spent my time playing video games and drinking beer? Have I placed character and charity above riches, or have I sought wealth before character and concern for others?  Do I say or think unfair things about women? Do I boast? Do I gossip? Do I forgive?

That’s a really hard list. Beer and distraction are way more fun than personal improvement. Money buys me beer and makes me feel comfortable. Sexist thoughts and comments about women are tempting. And it feels like a week let alone a day doesn’t go by without some temptation to boasting or gossiping. But I really, really like trying to hold myself to this standard because it makes me aware of the things I do that might not be right or just and would go unnoticed by myself if I didn’t actively pay attention.

The Beatitudes aren’t really an oath, but they’re similarly structured in a way that you can evaluate yourself:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The wording isn’t entirely concrete, but I think it’s clear enough. Have I been poor in spirit? Meek? Merciful? Clean of heart? Have I sought peace and reconciliation wherever possible? These are prime metrics by which I may judge whether I have walked rightly or not if I have the integrity to evaluate myself impartially, and again, they ask a great amount. Being meek and clean of heart is a continuous struggle. Peace and reconciliation are often far from our thoughts.

Lastly, I like oaths because they are a commitment to faithfulness and call to action. I took an oath upon my confirmation in the Catholic Church at 23:

For “by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.”

I have given God my word that I will uphold and defend the faith by word and deed. If I go back on that word, I will know that I am a liar and traitor for all of my life.

betrayers and mutineers

And that fact applies to everything I do. When I fail to live as Christ taught, in the Beatitudes and elsewhere, I fail to live by my oath. I bring disrepute upon the Church and the greater Christian communion. The only answer then, if I am to be faithful to my word, is to continually bring my life closer to the life of Him whom I have sworn to serve.

5 thoughts on “Why I Like Oaths”

  1. “I have given God my word that I will uphold and defend the faith by word and deed. If I go back on that word, I will know that I am a liar and traitor for all of my life.”

    This bit struck me as both inspiring and problematic, because it suggests a motivation for keeping one’s word which no longer applies once one has failed even once. That nicely raises the stakes, but seems to degrade badly for those of us who have failed. Do you think about oaths as having continuing value even after you’ve broken one, and, if so, how do you reconcile that with the characterization of yourself as a liar and traitor forever?

  2. “Do you think about oaths as having continuing value even after you’ve broken one, and, if so, how do you reconcile that with the characterization of yourself as a liar and traitor forever?”

    I think an oath still has value if you recognize you have broken it and try to make right, much the same way that we sin and can still be forgiven if we recognize our wrong and seek forgiveness. There is value, I believe, in having the integrity to recognize when you have failed and renewing your commitment.

    Things become a little more problematic when we get into the realm of rescinding an oath given freely and in good conscience. One could argue that we shouldn’t have to keep an oath to a person or institution we no longer believe in, but what then is the use of an oath if it only lasts so long as we please? I have no firm answer, so I would only say that the individual must be mindful of how permanently breaking one oath renders all future oaths suspect.

  3. That seems much more humane and hopeful. I had taken “for all of my life” to foreclose any opportunity to make it right or to recommit after a failure. Any moral motivator which depends on purity seems to have problems with incentives once purity has been violated. For myself, the idea of re-purifying is less intuitive than one which abandons purity and allows for the importance of striving to keep oaths no matter how thoroughly one might have failed in the past. But your view now seems like a legitimate alternative, where my misinterpretation of it appeared more problematic.

  4. I’m fine with oaths, but all of these are unwieldy and frankly despite having a ts Elliott tattoo I can’t remember more than eight lines in a row of prufrock. All of this just boils down to “love thy neighbor as thy self”

    I’m a 21st century digital boy, give me a sentance to aspire too, not all this hoopla

  5. I speak from the perspective of a prodigal son, so I have come to appreciate forgiveness, before God and before those I have wronged, and starting new and aright. You are right, Kelsey. If there is no way to regain purity once it has been lost, what incentive does a person gone astray have to right themselves? Thus the importance of mercy and forgiveness. On that account I am fond of Ezekiel 18.

    “But if a wicked man turns away from all his sins which he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness which he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”

    And of course Luke 15:7

    “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Comments are closed.