What is the importance of an oath? There are certain groups of people who are required at certain points of their lives to take oaths. For example, people who marry take wedding vows in which they promise to love and respect each other. Baptism requires similar vows of obedience to God. People serve as a witness in court take oaths to their honesty and integrity, and those who join the military or service in some governmental office swear to enforce the laws and to uphold the constitution. How seriously do people take these oaths? This is not merely an academic question. If a sheriff or governor seeks to do that which is unconstitutional, is such a thing the result of not knowing what the constitution says, or is it more a matter of being deliberately hostile to the restrictions it places upon them? If an officer in the Civil War betrayed his oath of loyalty and obedience to join enemies to that nation, has such a person betrayed his honor, regardless of how he may justify things to himself? To the extent that one has high demands on the importance of oaths and the honor that is lost by breaking them, one will have little respect for tyrants, adulterers, lying witnesses, or treasonous rebels.
Yet there are people who do not feel worse about someone because that person happens to be an oathbreaker while at the same time viewing themselves to be people of high honor and integrity. This leads us to the difficult question of what we consider to be honorable if it does not include faithfulness to our word and to our commitments. It is easy enough to see that we may want to justify ourselves if we are less than honorable but wish to view ourselves as people of honor. Human beings lack nothing when it comes to our ability to justify ourselves. Yet it is more rare when we allow others the same sort of liberty in justifying themselves that we take for ourselves. What is it that allows us to be blind of the failures that other people have in following their commitments? Do we overlook those who fail commitments in the same way that we would, or is there more to it than that? Is it that those people who overlook tyranny secretly fancy themselves to be well above being restrained by constitutional scruples? Is it that those who overlook the oaths of loyalty harbor disloyalty in their own hearts? It is hard to say.
To the extent that honor matters, it matters because it serves as a restraint on the way we behave. It is useless to claim that we are honorable people unless our sense of honor shapes our conduct by making it more gracious to others and less selfish. To the extent that we are governed by our own desires and lack self-restraint, honor is not really something that is governing our conduct and therefore it is not something that can really be said to be influencing the way we live. And yet we find ourselves in the sort of situation prophesied by C.S. Lewis, attacking honor as a sucker’s game and those whose conduct is restrained as lacking in drive and ambition, and yet we wish to receive the social benefits that come to the world as a result of being viewed as honorable people. If that was true in the past where people at least paid lip service to such matters, it is more striking perhaps that it remains true in our own times where even the appeal to honor has become viewed as merely a cloak for some sort of dishonorable vice.
When we look at the honor of oathbreakers, it is comforting to think of such matters as being the matter for other people who break their oaths and whose word is unreliable. It is far safer to condemn those who break their covenants as others and outsiders. But how are we to examine ourselves? Is our word a solid obligation or is it something that is merely dependent on our circumstances? It is an easy thing to accuse and condemn others, but how do we examine ourselves? Do we look at ourselves in the mirror and feel impressed or do we dig into questions about our faithfulness? Much depends on how seriously we take such matters as these.