Reformed Reflections

Are Promises Like Pie-Crusts?

"Promises and pie-crust are made to be broken," wrote the British satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). This reminds me of some Canadian politicians who make promises and break them. They know that to get elected, they must promise goodies. Consequently, they cater to a large number of groups and individuals that insist that they are owed or entitled to certain benefits, assistance, or preferences as a matter of rights. Promises may get friends and votes, but it is performance that must nurse and keep them. For some politicians, what they say and do are two different things. Sitting members in parliament have switched parties. An infamous example is Conservative, Belinda Stronach who defected to the Liberal Party and immediately became a member of Paul Martin's cabinet. And Dalton McGuinty's Liberal Government of Ontario has become infamous for breaking almost every promise made during the 2003 election.

Just before the January 2006 elections, David Emerson, a former Liberal industry ministry, labelled Conservatives as "angry" and "heartless" individuals who are "uncomfortable with ethnic minorities" and guided by an ideology where "the strong survive and the weak die." But as soon as Emerson was elected, he joined the Conservatives and was given a senior post by the new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Don't these politicians understand that their actions undermine democracy and add to political cynicism? They foster the belief of a good number of people that politics implies something unsavoury. Hence the generally low opinion of the politician as a figure in Canadian life. What kind of example do they offer our youth? Don't they rob our youth from the belief that words and promises have meaning? What are these politicians going to say when they are asked: "Do you yourselves believe what you are saying?"

We need to hold our elected politicians accountable in keeping their promises. But how important is a promise? A politician's promise adds a public character to do whatever good is promised. It may also be argued that fidelity to one's word is an essential presupposition of community. When a promise is broken, the trust of the community is assaulted. The keeping of a promise is a form of truthfulness in which an individual makes his actions conform to his words. A promise is an assurance one gives that he will do, give, or refrain from something to the advantage of another. It offers security for those who receive our promise that they can now count on our action. It creates an obligation. It is a declaration he/she will perform a certain act in the future. Therefore, the deliberate violation of a solemn promise is gravely sinful.

If making promises is such a serious matter, why are they so readily broken? Typical excuses are offered by way of rationalization for breaking of promises. A failed marriage is labelled "a mistake," as if the promises made when they exchanged their vows were really a miscalculation and not a covenant with another person. Binding oneself to a choice for life would seem to mean for many a loss of freedom. I have been told, "I was too young when I got married. I have changed in my perspective on life and interests. My wife and I have outgrown each other. I am not the same man I used to be" -as if it had been someone else who made the promise to stay faithful until death does part. These excuses trade upon a view of the self as entirely self-defining - as if people are at complete liberty to create their own values as often as needed. Of course, there are occasions when a promise cannot be kept. Exceptions may be made when, for example, fulfilment would involve sin or an unlawful act. But the more flexible approach must however take account of the consequences of undermining general confidence in the act of making promises. But after all is said and done, failure to keep a promise reveals either deception in its making or inconstancy, both are contrary to the character of God and the spirit of Christ.

The readiness to go back on one's words shows the moral illness of our times. Why do we see in the West such increase in pornography, homosexual rights, and abortion-on-demand? Why the high divorce rate, the weakening of family bonds, the deterioration of citizenship and civic virtue? Why have so many Canadians lost their trust in governmental institutions? Some may say, " What else is new? Were there no unsavoury politicians in the past?" Of course, there were. History has always been marred by opportunists and traitors. But pre-modern Western culture understood the matter differently. Modern readers of the medieval poet Dante, for instance, are often perplexed by the decision to regard betrayal and treachery as lower among the circles of Hell than crimes of violence. The difference between Dante's age and ours is theological. Our modern age has lost sight of God. It lives off the borrowed moral capital of a Judeo-Christian civilization while it denies objective moral, spiritual truth, and divine revelation. It is now in the process of rapidly squandering its inherited moral capital. Lutheran theologian and preacher Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986) pointed out, "As soon as the world loses the Father of the world, as it is deprived of God, it must necessarily be stripped of the invisible. And among invisibles, naturally, are norms such as justice and also the ethical laws of value that determine good and evil." And not mincing words, Marcus Honeysett in his book, Meltdown: Making Sense of a Culture in Crisis, said, "Our culture is in state of meltdown because we have disposed of truth in order to live without God."

Biblical Christianity is concerned with the whole of life -with social, economic, and political matters as well as private and personal matters. Churches are no longer protectors of public order. Christians left their faith at the doorstep of their homes when they became involved in politics and other public areas of life. They separated themselves from attachment to the wider society. Privatization of the Christian faith is now part of the story of Canadian religion. It has become limited to a Sunday gospel. Vincent Massey, the first Canadian Governor General, in his address to the Montreal Council on Christian Social Order in November 1953 ably described the situation as he saw it then. He said, "In our modern world, we have suffered an un-Christian division of life into two spheres, one of which is secular and public, and another, which being religious, is looked upon as private." In 1971 Dr. Robert N. Thompson, evangelical parliamentarian and educator, argued then already that Christians "are by and large living on the reservations of Canada." He stated that

"Our churches have become reserves where we retreated from the life-and-death battles that must be fought against the forces of evil six days of the week. We have allowed those who would make man the measure of all things to have free rein to work out their sinful designs largely unchallenged and uncriticised in all the public place where important issues are being determined. We are limited to a Sunday gospel, for all intents and purposes."

Privatized faith is easily susceptible to postmodernism. Postmodernism is individualistic, privileging personal preference, taste, and selection. A postmodern approach to ethics and truth is basically "a denial of God, of sin, of truth and a corresponding enthroning of self." It tends toward moral relativism and a slide towards nihilism, a world without meaning. It is a therapeutic self-realization, which has replaced the traditional teaching about sin and redemption. A postmodernist will say: "You must determine your own behaviour through your own authentic choices - and nothing more." The postmodernist believes any community can set up norms for behaviour. He will say, "Christian ethics are fine for the Christian community. But don't interfere with my 'truth'." Since there is no absolute truth, according to postmodernism, all viewpoints must be seen from a postmodern perspective. Hence politicians who break promises or bolt their party are only accountable to their own consciences and not to the community that elected them. These postmodern politicians set their own rules.

Over against privatization of the Christian faith, secularism, and postmodernism, which have been sapping our Canadian society for such a long time stands Biblical Christianity. It alone provides a reliable alternative to individualist-self-created values so many use for their ethical guidance. The God of the Bible, and God alone, certifies an objective moral order. He alone provides a source of moral authority and obligation, absolute standards for ethical behaviour, the incentive and power for character, a moral community of truth, and promise making and keeping. The idea of a promise is at the core of the Christian faith. The covenant of God with Israel may be viewed as a type of a promise. God makes promises and keeps them. And these promises were not for His own benefit. The bridge between God and mankind is built not from our side but from God's side. This is a matter of grace, and as we will see, a matter of the Christ-event. The patriarchs, especially Abraham, lived by faith in the promises of God (Gen. 12:l-4). The covenant promise made to Abraham extended to all Israel (Gen. 18:19; 21:1). God promised His people Canaan, a land of their own (Gen. 17:8; 40:24). And He kept that promise. For centuries the people of Israel inhabited the land of promise. God's people were to have a permanent kingdom ruled over by a Son of David ( 2 Sam.7:8-16). God's promises as interpreted by the New Testament were fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Acts 26:6). The apostle Paul testified: "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ. And so through him the 'Amen' is spoken by us to the glory of God" ( 2 Cor. 1:20). Those who have received Christ in faith become heirs to these promises (Eph.3:6). The fulfilment of God's promises is insured by God's faithfulness (Heb.10:23); and by God's ability to bring to completion what He promises (Isa. 43:12-13; Rom. 4:20-21). We will witness the complete fulfilment of all God's promises when our Lord returns in glory.

What happens if one abandons objective truth? How can one say any particular ethics or politics are true when there is no sure guide by which to measure one's actions? Without an absolute standard to point to, how does one know the right thing to do? If we take the Bible seriously, our model for promise making and keeping is the Triune God Himself. For the strength to be faithful to our promise, we must depend on God's grace. For our society to survive, it must rediscover objective-eternal values. It must give serious attention to the acts of the will - promises, resolutions, covenants, laws which are meant to express binding principles that rise above the considerations and politics of the moment. I am thinking of two men who were unswerving in their commitment to eternal standards. In 1521, Martin Luther had to appear before Emperor Charles the Fifth at the Diet of Worms because of "his teaching and books." He did not go back on his word. Instead he was able to say," I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience, I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen." Martin Luther's courageous declaration was not primarily a sign of an upright, decent character, but rather a sign of a foundation upon which that character was built. Ultimately he knew he had to give an account of his actions to his God, Whom He knew through Jesus Christ. Another man of integrity was C.S. Lewis, who receives so much attention today due to the Narnia phenomenon. He made a promise to his friend "Paddy" Moore, who was killed in Word War 1, that he would care for his mother, Janie. When he made that commitment to "Paddy", he knew to some extent the enormity of Janie's demanding nature, and of her senseless wranglings, lies, and follies. But he did not go back on his word. He told his brother Warren that he had made a choice, did not regret it, and would stick by it. Only after her death did Lewis begin to realize "quite how bad it was." He stuck to his promise because he knew the God Who made and kept promises.

Promises should not be treated like "piecrusts" which can be broken at every whim and wish. Instead, we need enduring commitments to those we love and civic friendship toward our fellow-citizens. We need not only to hold our elected politicians accountable in keeping their promises, but also one another. Ultimately, it is still up to us, as Christians, to show what it means to be a promise keeper in today's society.

Johan D. Tangelder
March 2006