There is a funny thing about living in a community for half your lifetime, it takes an outsiders question to really make you step back and look at what has become a fundamental assumption, and force you to think about, evaluate, and define why it has become one. Let’s start with the question.
“What is it with you Heathen’s and your obsession about oathbreaking? I mean its not like its something serious like killing someone!”
The speaker came from a different pagan tradition, a Wiccan to be precise, and our stance seemed to be rather at odds with her literal understanding of “an harm none, do as you will”. The definition of harm is probably at the heart of why we hold the view of oathbreaking that we do, but lets start with the basics. Rather than say the Wiccan’s are wrong, let us rather say that if the particular wiccan involved looked at the question as we do, they would understand that there could be no other choice than the one a heathen would make, reguarding oathbreakers.
New Heathens are quicker to see the power implicit in oaths, than the dangers associated with them. For this reason, a number of older Kindreds (like our Heathen Freehold) have rules strictly limiting newcomers abilities to swear oaths until they have a more fully developed sense of the consequences. Oaths have power, both magical and social, both psychological and political, to increase your worth or your standing in our community. Actually, the power is in no way limited to our community; it is rather that we focus on it more, and understand it perhaps more deeply than other parts of the physical communities we live in.
One of the foundations of our interactions as Heathens, both with each other, and with the spiritual world, is reciprocity. A gift for a gift. A good portion of the Hamaval devotes itself to the application of this in various relationships of friend, foe, friend of friend, friend of foe.
- To his friend a man | a friend shall prove,
And gifts with gifts requite;
But men shall mocking | with mockery answer,
And fraud with falsehood meet.
- To his friend a man | a friend shall prove,
To him and the friend of his friend;
But never a man | shall friendship make
With one of his foeman’s friends.
You return gift for gift, honesty with honesty, and lies for lies. Clearly you can deal with those you like, or don’t’ like, as long as both of you can be trusted to keep your word. If one cannot be trusted to keep their word to you, it is foolish to be honest with them, as you can only be harmed by offering truth knowing you will receive only deception in return.
The question of which is more serious murder or oathbreaking is a key question, and one Heathens might answer differently than most, until our arguments are fully expressed. Murder can kill only an individual, but oathbreaking threatens society as a whole, from economy to security. Murder can kill only a person, oathbreaking can kill communities, or even nations.
Oathbreaking is the giving of a promise, and the failure to adhere to its terms. We rely on promises to such a degree that we have largely become confused as to what it is we exchange every day. Currency is a promise of the government to back a piece of paper, or electrons standing as a promise for the paper which is itself a promise, that it stands behind this note for a value agreed upon by its face value. It is like a cheque, or an IOU. Nothing more than a promise; an oath. If you walk into a store and hand over a ten dollar bill and expect to receive food in return, but instead they keep your money and do not give you the purchased food, the contract of sale has been violated. The implicit oaths that link your labour to your pay to your ability to pay for the things you need have now been broken. What is the result when your work can no longer be trusted to enable you to buy food, clothing, shelter and the essentials of life? What is the result of this simple broken promise?
If someone walked into the store and shot the clerk, I would still be able to buy food at another branch of the same chain, or on another day. If the clerk would take my money and may or may not give me food in return, I would not be assured that my money could buy my food, or put gas in my car, or be accepted in return for rent. Killing the clerk, or killing a customer would take a life, but not threaten the function of society, but the idea that the oaths, the promises, that bind our society together might no longer be honoured threaten to bring down our civilization, our community, our nations.
In Canada, a recent government was caught doing something that in some respects is quite minor, and in others quite major. A government ministry forwarded a report recommending a grant be given, the minister responsible for this added one word, and then submitted the report to Parliament to vote. The word was “not”, and it was placed in front of “recommended” turning a recommendation to provide a grant, into a recommendation to deny the grant.
On the one hand, a minor alteration. On the other hand, this is a violation of the Minister’s oaths to fulfil her cabinet function and report to Parliament the recommendations of her ministry so that the elected representatives of the people can vote with full knowledge of the best information of the responsible government agencies. In violating her oath of office to change this one word, the vote of every single citizen of Canada was stolen, as their elected representatives did not get to vote upon the actual recommendations of the ministry, but on a lie. One oathbreaker has effectively stolen democracy from an entire nation. If you cannot trust that the information reported to the representatives is true, you cannot trust the laws so passed are in fact founded on truth. This undercuts the foundation required for us to function as a society.
The oaths of secrecy, known in the trade as Non Disclosure agreements, or Official Secrets Act, are the mechanisms by which information that is potentially damaging to real people can be shared with those who are required to act professionally in the service to their state, or in business settings, their corporation. To violate these oaths is to endanger those people whose information was given, or collected, with the understanding that it would be closely held for its sensitive and damaging nature. If this occurs, such information will no longer be shared, no longer be made available as the risk of abuse begins to become a more immediate threat than the possible benefit of just usage.
The medical system, psychiatric system, justice system, child welfare system, education system, banking system, military, and countless other key components of our society would be crippled if we could no longer trust those who collect and work with sensitive information about us. Murder can only kill a single human being, but oathbreaking kills trust, and trust is what our society actually runs on.
Our money is a promise, our law is a promise, our Constitution is a promise, our representative forms of government is a series of promises. Oathbreaking does not attack the flesh of our bodies, but the trust in promises. It is a greater threat than murder, and we treat it as such. The state tends to label such things as treason, and treat it as the most heinous of crimes for a reason.
Oathbreaking is also inevitable. Death before dishonour is a fine creed, but if you live for any length of time you will likely find yourself in a situation where what you had promised to do, you will be unable to do. Sometimes two oaths given independently and in justifiable belief that each could be honoured will be in conflict and you will have a choice BETWEEN which oath to keep and which to break, not if you will break an oath. Those who accept the cost of those broken oaths and strive to make right what they can will earn back what worth they have lost in time. Those who ignore the cost of those broken oaths, who continue to make promises they have no intention of honouring are nithling. The nithling choose to be oathbreakers because they understand that to enter into any contract or bargain with an honest person who will be bound by their oath, as the oathbreaker is not, is to be receiving something in return for nothing.
Heathens grow careful about limiting oaths, and setting specific terms to limit the scope of oaths with this in mind. Under promise and over deliver is the principal many of the wiser tend to operate under; as it is better to promise only what you cannot fail to provide, and earn honour in bettering your oath, than promise what you hope to deliver, and fall short. You gain honour for every oath fulfilled, and lose honour for every oath broken.
Heathens are not better people simply be being Heathen, but we are given a really good tool set to use to examine our relationships, our duties, and our actions to enable us to make choices consistent with our ethic. Used properly this tool set can allow you to live both morally and successfully. Heathenry provides us tools we can use to make better decisions, to choose to become more worthy people, it does not automatically make us better people. It does also provide us a fair lens through which to evaluate the choices of others. It can be as hard recognize that many people we wish to disagree with are actually acting honourably and should be treated as such, as it is to realize that some we have idolized are in fact acting dishonourably.
Politician, business partner, romantic partner, or friend; in any relationship that you enter into, it is most important for you to look not at the brightness of the promise that is offered, but the gap between the promises they are known to have given, and the actual resolution. It is not the brightness of the promise, but how accurately the promise reflects the delivered result that determines who is worthy for your consideration in any decision in your public, private, family or even romantic life.
Trust is as essential to life as air, food and water. Oathbreakers threaten that trust, and should be viewed as a threat to all we hold dear.