I never swear

So I am now officially a New Zealand citizen! The ceremony was very nice. There were only about 20 people there so it was quite cosy.

The person leading the ceremony made it out to be a very special (almost spiritual) occasion. I disagreed with him a little there. For me, the special / spiritual occasion had already happened many years ago, the moment I set foot on New Zealand soil. A date I will forever remember: December 5th, 1997.

To me, a citizenship ceremony (or marriage ceremony) is simply a public acknowledgement or affirmation of something that has already happened over a period of months or even years. For most of us, the piece of paper you get at the end of it all is a pure formality to be acknowledged by the community at large. The important thing is the relationship between someone and their chosen country of nationality (or between two spouses) not the brief minutes in which people repeated a whole bunch of words. This is evidenced by the fact that the government will not accept a marriage ceremony alone as proof of a relationship (when deciding whether to grant permanent residence to spouses). I will have more to say about ceremonies (marriage or otherwise) sometime in the future I am sure.

The subject of this post is relevant to the ceremony because at the time I applied for citizenship the form asked you if you want to take the oath (you can choose your own religious book to swear on) or the affirmation (a non-religious, secular version). I took the affirmation, even though I consider myself Christian. Even in my most devout moments I would never consider an oath of that nature.

I was speaking to someone from Church about it tonight in fact. Mark is a registered Justice of the Peace and when he was given the title, he was given the option of an oath or affirmation. He also chose the affirmation for the same reason as I did, because of his faith. Both Mark and I had this strange sensation during the ceremonies though. You see, even though New Zealand is a fiercely secular nation, it seemed that most of the people at my ceremony (and Mark’s) decided to take the oath. I can kind of understand that, swearing on the Bible (or other holy text) seems to hold some sort of spiritual weight behind it. I am sure most of the people swearing on the Bibles didn’t truly understand or believe the significance of what they were doing.

So, there I was, one of the brave few who chose to do the affirmation instead of the oath, standing proudly and proclaiming that I would honour the queen as loudly as I dared, all the while I had this sneaky suspicion that those around me were judging me for my decision. That they thought I was some rabid atheist who was objecting to this sentimental notion of spirituality, or that perhaps I didn’t feel as strongly in my convictions about citizenship as they did.

The real reason why is far from that. It’s a principle I hold very dear. It all started with a conversation with my father when I was 6 years old.

My father was painting the inside of the spare room at our old house. This was where the “girl” used to stay. That is a different matter entirely. This was 15 Trent place in Westville, South Africa if I recall correctly. I had recently added something to my vocabulary and I wanted to test it out: “What on earth are you doing?” I asked seriously. Rather than the expected answer to my rhetorical question I got a theological lesson instead.

“Don’t say that” he replied.
“Why not”
“It’s blasphemy, God doesn’t like it”

He went on to elaborate on the verses of Matthew 5:34-36:
“but I tell you, don’t swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shall you swear by your head, for you can’t make one hair white or black.”

These were some of the specific admonishments Jesus made against certain forms of oaths. I never said “what on earth” again. At the same time I got hold of some stationary which had “Dear God” on it. I crossed out “God” on every single page. I didn’t understand at the time, though, how some words could be bad and some words could be good.

I still don’t. You see, there is no such thing as a bad word, only bad intentions. I freely admit that I am probably a little too fond of the “f-word”. I do try to curtail its usage in mixed company. Even so, that is not the sort of swearing Jesus is referring to here. Most people think the concepts of “blasphemy” and “swearing” are associated with the so-called dirty curse words. They are not.

Some years after my father explained these curious verses to me, I ended up reading the relevant verses for myself. My father missed out a little context. Jesus is not giving a list of bad words here, he is making a clear statement about his views on oaths / vows / swearing. I give you the context of verses 33 & 37:

Again you have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall perform to the Lord your vows,’
but I tell you, don’t swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shall you swear by your head, for you can’t make one hair white or black.
But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one.

What does this mean? Well, for starters, it doesn’t mean that saying “what on earth?” is bad at all. What Jesus is saying is really quite simple and is summed up in the verse: “let your yes be yes and your no be no”.

In other words, if you promise to do something, then do it. Why do you need to put your hand on the Bible or invoke the name of God before people will take you seriously? Do you only tell the truth because you fear God might do something bad to you if you don’t? If you are a person of integrity, then your word is enough. I don’t mind so much if people use “foul” language in front of me, I am not easily offended. But I am very uncomfortable when people invoke the name of God to make their words more important.

As a child, I always heard other kids say: “cross my heart, hope to die”. I never did, and never do. I never swear or oath. I may say “fuck” every now and again but I never ever swear.