Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Oaths, Vows, Pledges, Promises and Creeds

Knowing the etymology of that word in the feudal system and its connotation of owing everything to your liege lord, including your family and your life, I reserve it for God alone as do my Mennonite friends. Most Americans today, I'd bet, would probably tell you that the Pledge of Allegiance was written by our nation's founders along with the Declaration and the Constitution. Hardly. I've wished for many years we could replace it with something I wrote for myself and say in its place when others say the pledge:

"I recognize and I accept the privileges and the responsibilities of citizenship in the United States of America, and I pledge my very best efforts in the faithful exercise of both my whole life long."

For me, it ends the confusion of national idolatry, the confusion of symbol with its antecedent. I place my hand over my heart when the flag is presented and the national anthem is played, not because a piece of cloth is there but because the flag calls to mind the abstract ideals of an empowered, self-governing people living under the rule of constitutional law (as opposed to tyrannical plutocracy and autocracy). It is this ideal that commands my respect and my best efforts to translate from concept to concreteness.

Words matter. They must matter. They have to matter. That's why as a 24-year-old Airman First Class with a brand new 22-year-old wife on my arm I made a vow as we walked from the altar down the aisle to greet our guests. We had memorized our traditional vows so that we said them to each other as complete statements from our hearts. My new silent vow to myself was that I would remember that wedding vow and repeat it verbatim to my wife on our 25th anniversary. I did so when that day came 15 years ago. I can still say that vow verbatim. Over the years it's been a superb and humbling reminder to me what I promised 40 years ago. Words matter.

One of my greatest conflicts of conscience was the oath of enlistment. I didn't promise to uphold the country, a party, a president or an ideology. I promised to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to faithfully execute the lawful orders of my superior officers. Since I considered the Commander-in-Chief at the time to be a formidable domestic enemy of the Consitution and the war we were engaged in to be illegitimate, there would have been things that I would have had to say "No, sir!" to, had I been ordered to do them.

Fortunately as a Cold Warrior with real and numerous enemy nuclear, chemical, biological and conventional WMD under our purview, I could comply with what I was asked to do without a violation of both oath and conscience. Again, words matter. If not so, we would never have written the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, numerous laws. We would not have courts to decide exactly (well, maybe somewhat approximately) just what all those words mean and how to apply them.

It might be really good for us to take a time out in our churches and coffee klatsches to consider the words that define our lives. I was ordained into the "holy catholic church", the church of the whole shebang, on January 29. More words. I take them as seriously as all others. As the bishop said before placing his hands on my head, for this office I am accountable to God. It doesn't go any higher than that. At my age, that accounting will come sooner rather than later. Soon and very soon...

Yes, it would be good for us to review our vows, our promises, our oaths, our pledges. And before we ever presume to send another person to lay down their life in our name, we first ought to be completely clear ourselves just what their oath of enlistment requires of them and what citizenship requires of us. Yes, they can be ordered to lay down their lives--provided that a legal test is met from stem to stern. Convenience has nothing to do with it. And no laws or legalisms are legitimate unless they are first on the side of the right. Strange that we task our soldiers with making that interpretation with every order when the responsibility and the authority both clearly rest with us. Our job.

That is, after all, what we said this country was about when we built it. Words mattered then. They still do. They are all we have to give definition to the ideals that I hope always fly overhead like a flag that never touches the ground over which those ideals reign under the dominion of God.

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