A Muslim’s Oath : An Atheist’s Affirmation

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
6th July 2013

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Should we be upset that one of the new ministers in the Federal Cabinet swore his oath on a Qur'an?

This week as the Governor General swore in the new cabinet, Mr Ed Husic, chose to swear on the Qur’an rather than the Bible or make an affirmation.  A ‘non-practising’ Muslim from Bosnia, Mr Husic was sworn in as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and Parliamentary Secretary for Broadband.

Swearing is a strange symbolism, by which we persuade and reassure people of our integrity in making promises.  Christians should not need to swear for we should be people of our word.  As Jesus said in response to Pharisaic hypocrisy, “Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil.  (Matthew 5:37 cf James 5:12)

The Christian’s truthfulness will not be increased by swearing, but swearing reassures our hearers that we are telling the truth and gives them something to refer back to when our truthfulness comes under question.  There is nothing wrong in swearing an oath when required.  The 39th of our 39 Articles is “Of a Christian man’s Oath” handling the question of doing that which Jesus seems to be forbidding.  We do not swear because we need to but because our hearers need reassurance.

Within the scriptures we see the apostle swearing “God is my witness” (Romans 1:9, Phil 1:8) and God himself swore that the people of Israel would not enter his rest (Hebrews 3:18).  Swearing is a way of giving solemn assurance to the hearer that you mean what you are saying and will back it up before a higher court to whom the hearer may appeal.  And that is why we swear in God’s name or on his book.

There is no point swearing by something less than yourself.  For an oath to be believable you have to point to something, like God, greater than yourself. However, to which god can somebody be held accountable?  At first glance you can only swear by the true and living God.  For swearing by Molech is of not much consequence, as Molech is a powerless imagination of the ancient Ammonites - hardly reassuring to the modern listener.  Yet you must swear by the god that you believe in.  If you were an ancient Ammonite there is no point swearing by Yahweh, while to swear by Molech would indicate your sincerity.

Mr Husic is the first Federal cabinet minister to swear on the Qur’an.  For Mr Husic swearing on the Bible was not an option and he didn’t want to make a simple affirmation.  As a Muslim, it is the god of the Qur’an whom he acknowledges as greater than himself and to whom he would be accountable for his promises. For some people it is insulting to swear on a book that is seen as fomenting so much war and terror around the world today.  For others it is no real promise as the book is one of lies and its god is not the true and living one.  For many others still it further marginalises Christianity from our nation and its historic establishment.  Even if these are true, they give absolutely no excuse for the abuse Mr Husic has had to endure.

Australia is a Christian nation, not in the sense of it being run by and for Christians with an established religion that all must follow, but in the sense that Christianity informs the people, heritage and culture.  As a Christian nation we have freedom of religion, which involves limiting government to matters secular, while allowing free expression of religious beliefs.  It is part of our wonderful Christian heritage that a Muslim migrant can become a Cabinet minister and express his religion without fear or favour.

When Christianity has ruled in government, both Christianity and the government have been distorted.  We win people to Christ not by government fiat but by prayerful persuasion to the truth.

The fact that Mr Husic is a non-practising Muslim is no more a problem than the non-practiscing Christian swearing on the Bible. Even the non-practising recognize that they are not God and are answerable to some higher power than themselves.  The Muslim who swears by the Qur'an can at least be held to its teaching, and does not put himself in the place of God.  The practice of swearing an oath is therefore better than a simple affirmation.

Affirmations have been in use for some centuries because of the conscience of people not wanting to invoke God in their promises.  Some of these are tender Christian consciences, who misunderstand Jesus’ prohibition on swearing. However, others will only make an affirmation because, as atheists, they refuse to refer to a higher being than themselves.  They are like Napoleon placing the crown on his own head for there was nobody greater to crown him.  So they are not answerable to anybody or anything other than themselves.

With an affirmation we have to take the word of a politician seeking more power on the basis of their ‘say so’.  Often this doesn’t matter in practice as most of the oath-taking politicians are practical atheists and most of the affirming politicians unconsciously practise Christian values.  However, theoretically those who affirm are swearing by themselves for they have no greater source of moral reference to which they can point or to which we can call them to account but themselves.  Of such arrogance comes tyranny.

The New Testament understands the problem of the atheist.  In Hebrews we read of God swearing by himself.  “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, …  For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation.  So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath.” (Hebrews 6:13f)  But then again he is God.