Matthew 5:33-37 and James 5:12
Matthew 5. 33-37 and James 5. 12 - Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one Likewise, James, in his letter writes: Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
“Do not swear. Make no oaths. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain. Let your ‘Yes’, mean, ‘Yes’. And let your ‘No’, mean No’.” In other words, mean what you say and say what you mean. In other words, tell the truth and let your word be your bond.
But, because humans, since the time of Adam and Eve, have been known to not tell the truth, have been known to fudge and spin and manipulate and divert, because of truthiness and alternative facts and lying, because of fabricated news and propaganda, because humans have been known to speak with forked tongue, because we can be deceitful and double-dealing, insincere and devious, disingenuous and misleading, because of these all-too human tendencies – because some humans are really good at lying and some have no compunction about it – because of this, we have taken to requiring people to swear oaths, to place hand on Bible, or hand over heart, to invoke the deity, to swear, “So help me God”. We have taken to bringing God into it because we can’t be trusted on our own to be honest.
Yet, there are two places in the Bible that provide explicit prohibition against taking such deity-invoking oaths. These need to be reckoned with – if, for no other reason than where they appear.
They appear in the Ten Commandants: “Do not take God’s name in vain.” They appear in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Don’t swear by heaven or by earth, or by anything else: let your Yes, be Yes, or your No, be No.”
There was a group of people in the 1600’s in Boston who did reckon with this: Quakers. Quakers took the biblical prohibition against oath-taking with utmost seriousness. Among the most radical of the groups to emerge from the English Reformation, Quakers refused to swear oaths. Which meant they could not give witness in a court of law, and they could not pledge allegiance to a nation or a monarch or a constitution.
While there were many additional points of theological difference between our Puritan forebears and the Quakers of the time, what our forebears most objected to about the Quakers was their insistence and conviction that they were right in all matters of theology and that our forebears were wrong.
The Quakers of the 1600’s were on a mission: to change the beliefs and practices of our forebears. They wanted to make us like them. (Imagine that). They wanted our forebears to believe as they believed, to practice as they practiced. The Quakers of the 1600’s were zealous evangelists. They were ardent, even fanatical missionaries. They came here from England and from the West Indies for the express purpose of persuading our forebears of the error of their ways! Imagine that!
The Quakers were so obnoxious, so insufferable that our forebears – who, mind you, came to his land for religious freedom – actually outlawed them. In the year 1656 the General Court of Massachusetts issued an edict that that any and all Quakers found in the colony should be whipped, imprisoned and sent packing, banished.
Yet, the Quakers persisted. Claiming divine inspiration, claiming they were in possession of “a message from the Lord,” they kept returning. They came here for the express purpose of denouncing Massachusetts’ institutions and reviling its ministers and magistrates. Wherever they could get a hearing, they’d seize the opportunity. They preached and taught behind closed doors with shades drawn in homes. They preached in public squares. They passed out tracts and pamphlets. While they did not come in large numbers, they made up for that with dogged resolve.
For their words and deeds, Quakers were arrested, whipped, imprisoned, banished and, in four instances, from 1659 to 1661, executed.
All of this came to a head on Sunday, July 8, 1677, in our first meetinghouse, the Cedar Meetinghouse. Today is the anniversary of the Sunday, precisely three-hundred-and-forty-one years ago, of a remarkable act of civil disobedience … and act of civil disobedience wrought by a handful Quakers with this church and our minister being the direct object of their protest.
For those of you who are familiar with our work with the greater Boston Interfaith Organization, you know it is based on Saul Alinsky-style community organizing. In his book, Rules for Radicals, Alinsky published a guide for how to organize the “have-nots” to gain social, political, legal, and economic power. The Quakers of the 1600’s were the “have-nots.” Our forebears were the “haves”. Saul Alinsky could have used the 1677 act of civil disobedience from as a model.
Let me set the scene. It is Sunday, July 8, 1677. Our minister, Thomas Thacher, is in the pulpit. Thomas Thacher has much to commend him, but what you need to know to understand this story: he is virulently anti-Quaker. Thomas Thacher is in the pulpit and he is in mid-sermon when up the broad aisle comes a wild, unnerving sight. A woman, a stranger, has entered. She strides up the aisle. She is bare-footed. Her hair is loose. Her face is smeared with ashes. Her hair streaked with ashes. And, with the exception of a sackcloth frock, she is as naked as the day she was born.
Old South member, Samuel Sewall, who was there that day, wrote: “It occasioned the greatest and most amazing uproar that I ever saw” … imagine women fainting and shrieking, and men shouting.
So disturbing is this demonstration, and so delicate are the ladies of Old South Church that, it is reported several were in danger of miscarrying. Increase Mather further reported that another woman, so terrified by the vision, actually “died as a consequence.” Which I have to think is Increase Mather’s own propaganda machine spinning out his side of it, as there is no other mention in any writings I can find, that anyone died of freight.
That’s not to say that our forebears weren’t frightened by this episode. They were. But more than that, worse, they had been called out. Shamed and named and exposed for their intolerance and cruelty.
What Margaret Brewster and her fellow Quakers undertook that day was a dramatic protest, a calling out. The Quakers evoked the Old Testament prophets who donned sackcloth and ashes to rail at the abuses of those in power.
For their impudence, for causing such a disturbance, such distress, the Quaker protesters were arrested there and then. The following day, Margaret Brewster, their leader, was sentenced to be whipped with twenty lashes while being hauled up and down the lanes of Boston in a cart.
Despite that, Margaret Brewster’s act of civil disobedience worked. The people of Boston were uneasy with such severe treatment of the Quakers. In fact, the punishment of Margaret Brewster in 1677, is the last known example of such harsh treatment of the Quakers.
The problem between the Quakers and the Puritans of the 1600s is they both believed, passionately and absolutely, that they were in the right and the other was in the wrong. Each believed sincerely and unequivocally that they possessed the truth while the other was in error.
Moreover, not only did each believe they were in the right and the other in the wrong, they were equally persuaded of their duty to convert the other to their way of thinking and doing.
Today, whether you read, watch or listen to the news, a lot of the news has to do with arguing over and judging what is true and what is false, what is real and what is drummed up, what is straight and what is spin, what sheds light and what causes obfuscation, what clarifies and what muddies, what is fair and what is partisan, what is right and what is wrong.
Even for persons who are well-intentioned, truth can be a tricky thing. There can be my truth and your truth. His truth and her truth. Their truth and our truth. Then, when you add into the equation persons who are not wholly well intentioned, persons who care more about being right than they care the truth, it makes it worse yet.
Three-hundred-and-forty-one year ago today, Old South Church was called out for hubris and cruelty, for intolerance of others. Never mind that they who called us out were every bit as intolerant of our truth as we of theirs. Three-hundred-and-forty-one years ago today, our forebears were in the wrong because they were in the majority; they held the reins of power.
Their intolerance, their hubris, their self-righteous surety, led to terrible suffering on behalf of a minority people, a minority religion: led to banishment, imprisonment, whipping, and even execution. It was a shameful episode in our storied past.
I hope and pray that we have learned a hard lesson well. I hope we have learned that truth is evasive, a hard thing to get firm ahold of; that to think different thoughts, to believe different beliefs, that to hold to different practices, is a God-given right, a right we had best protect and defend.
The episode of July 8, 1677 was so dramatic, so defining, that two hundred years later John Greenleaf Whittier, a famous Quaker poet, put it to words. He made a ballad of it.
This morning, Old Southers Evan Shu and Pam Roberts, present it now, dramatically, that we might remember this chapter with equal portions of regret and repentance.
And, let the final stanza …
So long as Boston shall Boston be
And her bay tides rise and fall
Shall freedom stand in the Old South Church
And plead for the rights of all
… let the final stanza, a stanza for which you will be invited to rise that we might read it together let the final stanza be for us, neither an oath nor a swearing. Let us leave God out of it.
Let us pledge it together, person to person. Let us mean what we say. And may our word be our bond. You will find the poem on the insert:
New England: Boston, Mass, In the Old South Church
Poem by John Greenleaf Whittier
She came and stood in the Old South Church
A wonder and a sign,
With a look the old-sibyls wore,
Half-crazed and half-divine.
Save the mournful sackcloth about her wound,
Unclothed as the primal mother,
With limbs that trembled, and eyes that blazed
With a fire she dare not smother.
Loose on her shoulder fell her hair,
With sprinkled ashes gray;
She stood in the broad aisle, strange and weird
As a soul at the judgment day.
And the minister paused in his sermon’s midst,
And the people held their breath,
For these were the words the maiden said
Through lips as pale as death: --
“Thus saith the Lord: ‘With equal feet
All men my courts shall tread,
And priest and ruler no more shall eat
My people up like bread!’
“Repent, repent! – ere the Lord shall speak
In thunder, and breaking seals!
Let all souls worship him in the way
His light within reveals!”
She shook the dust from her naked feet,
And her sackcloth closely drew,
And into the porch of the awe-hushed church
She passed like a ghost from view.
They whipped her away at the tail o’ the cart;
(Small blame to the angry town!)
But the words she uttered that day nor fire
Could burn nor water drown.
For now the aisles of the ancient church
By equal feet are trod;
And the bell that swings in its belfry rings
Freedom to worship God!
And now, whenever a wrong is done,
It thrills the conscious walls;
The stone from the basement cries aloud,
And the beam from the timber calls!
There are steeple-houses on every hand,
And pulpits that bless and ban;
And the Lord will not grudge the single church
That is set apart for man.
For in two commandments are all the law
And the prophets under the sun;
And the first is last, and the last is first,
And the twain are verily one.
So long as Boston shall Boston be,
And her bay-tides rise and fall,
Shall freedom stand in the Old South Church,
And plead for the rights of all.