Do you Swear to Tell the Truth?
During my university days, a lawyer phoned me and requested my presence in court as a witness to a car crash. I was thoroughly displeased about this because it would involve missing some important classes. This did not put me in the best frame of mind on the day of the trial. I was determined to keep my testimony short and sweet and pin the blame solidly on the person whom I was convinced was the offending party. Then I could go back to university. But something happened on the way to the witness stand. The court setting was not all that impressive – it looked like a converted community hall. What was impressive, however, was taking the witness stand in a court of law, putting my hand on the Bible and swearing an oath that I would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. Suddenly my displeasure at missing classes vanished and my personal prejudices melted away. Only one thing really mattered: that the truth be spoken and justice administered. As a result I answered the questions as carefully and honestly as I possibly could. Here I received a firsthand experience of the significance of an oath.
Basically an oath in a court of law which invokes the name of God is a calling on God to serve as witness that the oath-taker is speaking the truth. The Heidelberg Catechism says in Answer 102:
A lawful oath is a calling upon God, who alone knows the heart, to bear witness to the truth, and to punish me if I swear falsely.
Thus an oath which appeals to the name of God should impress on an oath-taker that he is to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. To commit perjury which is lying under oath would result in grave consequences before God. The Heidelberg Catechism says in Answer 101 that oath-taking is based on God’s Word and that its purpose is “to maintain and promote fidelity and truth, to God’s glory and for our neighbour’s good.” What a blessing an oath is when it maintains and promotes the truth! Truth in a court of law is essential to the administration of justice. When a witness lies that can lead to the guilty being cleared and the innocent being punished. A lie in a court of law can let a thief or a murderer go free. A lie in a court of law can also cost an innocent person his livelihood, his reputation, his freedom and his family. Therefore an oath which calls upon God as witness is meant to secure justice and truth which will lead to God’s glory and the neighbour’s good.
The oath which is traditionally put to witnesses in Canadian courts has the witness place his hand on the Bible and asks of him: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” However, the law currently allows almost any form of oath that a judge feels will lead a witness to tell the truth. In fact there is a push within the judicial system to replace the traditional religious oath with a simple promise to tell the truth. In other words, a person swears on the basis of his personal integrity and reputation. One of the main arguments for this change is that the courts should reflect the multicultural character of Canada.
The National Post of March 1, 1999 reported on recent developments in connection with courtroom oaths. In April 1998, Brosi Nutting, chief judge of the Saskatchewan Provincial Court wrote the federal Justice Department, recommending the abolition of the traditional oath on the Bible in favour of a simple promise to tell the truth. During an interview, Nutting explained why he is in favour of such a change. Some years earlier he had a young aboriginal man in his court who made clear that a traditional oath would not bind his conscience. Nutting improvised by letting the young man burn sweetgrass in an ashtray and coming up with this oath: “Having taken the sweetgrass ritual, will you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” The issue surrounding the nature of an oath in Canada’s courtrooms is not a small one. Since 1995 a federal-provincial working group on multicultural and race relations in the justice system has been recommending a change in the oath along the lines suggested by Brosi Nutting. The federal-provincial group has released a paper to different groups such as court administrators, religious organizations and aboriginals. Apparently there was a split in opinion among the respondents. Obviously there are many in our country who still believe that an oath which invokes the name of God is valid and is essential in maintaining and promoting the truth.
As Christians who witness a steady erosion of respect for God and his Word in our society, we might feel somewhat resigned to changes in the traditional courtroom oath. We might even think that such a change will not make much difference in our courts. On the one hand, we are seeing cases of perjury which suggest that people are not taking an oath in God’s name seriously. On the other hand, it might seem pointless to keep God’s name in the courtroom oath when so many people no longer worship God in accordance with his Word.
Another consideration is that in some cases a person may have as much or even more compulsion to tell the truth when burning sweetgrass in the courtroom or swearing in the name of “mother earth” or promising “to my own self I will be true.” However we should not easily surrender to this line of reasoning. We would be depriving God of the glory due to Him as the only one who can search the hearts of men. Furthermore, in a nation where a high percentage of people claim to believe in God and where an oath in God’s name is a long standing tradition in our courts, we may expect that witnesses who take an oath calling upon God as witness will be compelled to think seriously about their testimony. While there are horrible examples of perjury in Canada and the United States, there are also examples of people who under oath felt compelled to tell the truth even when it was to their personal disadvantage to do so. An oath which calls on the name of God still functions in such a way that truth is maintained and promoted to God’s glory and for our neighbour’s good.
The suggestion that people should be trusted on the basis of their own word leaves many people sceptical. When leaders of the land are being caught in lies and deception on a regular basis, we wonder about the integrity of people whose motivations are often egocentric. In a court of law where the truth is critical it is important to have in place something that will maintain and promote the truth. An oath which calls upon God as witness still serves to impress on a witness to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. During the next few months when many criminal justice reforms are being considered, decisions about the nature of the courtroom oath may also be made. We should be well aware of what is at stake. Not only can we pray for God to intervene, but we can also contact our Member of Parliament or the federal Justice Department about our concerns. May the glory of God and the well being of our neighbour be maintained in the courts of our nation.