I had the privilege of serving on jury duty for Mecklenburg County in the state of North Carolina last week. Of course, I’ve always known that no prosecutor in his or her right mind would ever want a person who peddles in compassion like me on a jury; that suspicion was confirmed when I was rejected on the basis of the answers I gave the prosecutor on Thursday. But I would have to say that, overall, my time at the courthouse was a comfortable experience with movies and popcorn and wireless internet access for my laptop in the suite for jurors. The only uncomfortable moment for me came right after our morning orientation. That’s when we were sworn in.
Our suite, which was equipped with all the amenities, had little racks with Gideon Bibles under each chair. When we swore our oath we were instructed to take the Bible in our left hand and raise our right hand. How archaic, I thought. But this is the 21st century after all, so we were also offered another option. We could either swear an oath on the Bible, or we could affirm something or another. (I don’t remember the wording of it, but it was basically saying the same thing only without the Bible as a prop and for some reason the word “swear” wasn’t used.) I opted for the latter.
The whole notion of swearing on a Bible offended me. First of all, there was the fact that no other holy books were available for people to swear on, should they have wanted to swear on a holy book. No Koran, for example. And then, even for those who read the Bible, the one we used was specifically a Protestant Bible. Other Christians, such as Catholics, include other books in their Bible. Jews don’t include what Christians call the New Testament. But, since this was MY Bible, why was I so uncomfortable using it to take an oath?
My discomfort has a lot to do with my understanding of what the Bible is. For me, it is more than a book to be used symbolically to take a public oath. Within the words on the pages of the Bible, God speaks to me. That makes the Bible a sacred, holy, book. To use the Bible in this way in which it was never intended is something of a sacrilege to me.
I did a little digging to find out where the practice of swearing on a Bible comes from. It goes back to English Common Law. First passed in 1777, the North Carolina oath statute says that oaths are “most solemn appeals to Almighty God, and the affiant is declared to invoke divine vengeance on himself if he lies.” Since the Bible talks about the divine judgment that will fall upon evil doers, the value of swearing on a Bible is that if you don’t tell the truth, you know God is going to punish you for it. For a long time, only Christians were allowed to testify in court because of this. If you didn’t fear the divine judgment of God, you couldn’t be trusted. Interesting theology that says the only reason why a person could be trusted to do the right thing is if they live in fear of eternal damnation if they don’t. Are there still people around who believe this?
I can’t imagine how anyone who comes to know the God Jesus has revealed to us in the pages of the Christian Bible would not be offended by such a distorted view of God. God is not an angry tyrant in the sky who is waiting for an opportunity to zap us when we mess up. God’s justice is not about vengeance, and giving people what they deserve, but it's about love, mercy, forgiveness and compassion. Actually, if Christians got to know the God of the scriptures and lived according to the standards of God’s Realm, the entire legal system as we know it might come to a grinding halt. If there is a book that we would do well to keep out of courtrooms, it is the Christian Bible.
The real irony of good Christian people swearing on a Bible is this. If they ever actually read a Bible and got to know the Jesus they claim to follow, they would read what he has to say about oaths in the Sermon on the Mount. And they would see the absurdity of making an oath by swearing on a book in which Jesus tells them not to swear an oath. (See Matthew 5:33-37)