As Johnny climbed into the witness chair, even the old, grizzled judge softened to see a 6-year-old child dragged into the adult world of courtrooms, lawyers and violent crimes. But Johnny, however young, was a necessary witness, and the judge, however hesitant, had to know whether little Johnny understood the oath he was about to take.
“Johnny,” began the judge, “do you know the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Johnny.
“And do you know that it is wrong to tell a lie?”
The judge leaned over the youngster and asked, “Well then, do you know what happens to a person that tells a lie?”
Johnny nodded. “Yes, sir! They go to hell!”
“No, Johnny,” the judge said impatiently, ignoring the quiet murmurs of laughter in the courtroom. “I mean, what else happens to a person who tells lies?”
“Gosh, judge,” shrugged Johnny, “isn’t that enough?”
Young Johnny may believe there are severe consequences for lying, but it seems Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Bill Clinton were not too worried about that when they lied under oath. Libby, a vice presidential aide, was recently convicted of perjury for lying to a grand jury during an investigation into an alleged intelligence leak. Clinton, of course, lied to a grand jury about whether he was in an inappropriate relationship with a White House intern. We can expect more perjury by high-ranking government officials if our legal system continues to remove from its courts and its oaths the knowledge of a sovereign God who punishes evil.
There is a reason witnesses in court are sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, “so help me God.” This solemn oath is sworn in our courtrooms for more than mere tradition or ceremonial flourish – it is given because God has imposed upon witnesses a moral obligation not to “bear false witness.”
For centuries, the witness oath has been sworn before Almighty God to demonstrate that the obligation to truth is not just to our fellow man, but is also to the Author of Truth. In 1256, Henry de Bracton wrote in “On the Laws and Customs of England” that jurors took this oath:
Hear this, ye justices, that we will speak the truth about what is asked of us on the King’s behalf, nor will we for any reason fail to tell the truth, so help us God.
Even the kings of England took an oath with their hand “upon the holy Gospels” and said, “The things which I have here promised I will perform and keep, so help me God.”
Taking the oath before a God of truth is a fundamental principle of our legal system. Sir William Blackstone wrote in his “Commentaries on the Laws of England” in 1765 that a belief in heaven, hell, “the Supreme Being” and in final compensation for “every action in human life” is “the grand foundation of all judicial oaths.”
[Judicial oaths] call God to witness the truth of those facts, which perhaps may be only known to him and the party attesting: all moral evidence therefore, all confidence in human veracity, must be weakened by apostasy, and overthrown by total infidelity.
An atheistic legal system, Blackstone believed, would be “overthrown” by its own unbelief.
The Founding Fathers, who were quite knowledgeable of Blackstone’s “Commentaries,” knew our rights came from the Creator God and were protected by the sacred witness oath taken before that God. John Jay, the first U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, wrote that witness testimony “is given under those solemn obligations which an appeal to the God of Truth impose; and if oaths should cease to be held sacred, our dearest and most valuable rights would become insecure.”
George Washington, who appointed Jay to the Supreme Court, voluntarily added “so help me God” to his inaugural oath of office in 1789. That same year Congress passed the Judiciary Act, which to this day requires every federal judge to take the judicial oath to the Constitution “so help me God.” In his prophetic Farewell Address, Washington warned the young country about the importance of the witness oath:
Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?
While the ACLU and other anti-Christian groups engage in a crusade to rid the courts of solemn reminders of God, they undermine the moral fiber of the legal system and its discernment of truth in the pursuit of justice.
While the Bible repeatedly chastises the “lying tongue,” the ninth commandment does not say “thou shalt not lie,” but rather “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Exodus 20:16). In fact, the Israelites were commanded to punish a false witness with the same punishment that the unjustly accused would have received (Deuteronomy 18:18-19) – certainly a strong deterrent to lying under oath!
Obviously, God takes witness testimony very seriously. Witnesses must take their obligations before God seriously, as well. Just ask little Johnny.
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