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  • Reverend James Squire

The Great Oxford Comma Debate and Holy Week

Photo by Aaron Burden

If you are not a journalist, English teacher, writer, or lawyer then the Oxford Comma Debate may not be something that would really catch your interest, but it is something as small as a comma and big as a ten million dollars lawsuit, clarification of an ethical or religious issue, or anything else where you would want to see clarity.

The Oxford Comma is the comma that is placed between the last two items or three or more at the end of a sentence. An example of the need for the Oxford Comma would be the following: “I admire my parents, Martin Luther King and Kamala Harris. If there isn’t a comma between King and “and”, someone might think that Kamala Harris and Martin Luther King are your parents. The Oxford Comma gives that sentence total clarity such as if we say, “I admire my parents, Martin Luther King, and Kamala Harris.

Oakhurst Dairy in Maine did not include a comma between the last two descriptions of what constituted overtime. The judge ruled that because of the lack of clarity in that part of the job description, he awarded the workers ten million dollars in that case. He found the statement to be ambiguous therefor he had to rule in favor of the workers. He wanted to see the Oxford Comma to rule otherwise.

Opponents of the Oxford Comma find it redundant, stuffy, and pretentious. If you are in the newspaper or magazine business, it takes up valuable space.

I am aware of a recent legal dispute where one party used the expression something X or something Y which implies that either could be true. But another reading of the law said that something X, or something Y (with the comma) is true. You have to choose between the somethings as they are each independent items. It is further clarity given to the same legal statement.

But what is the debate really about? In my opinion, it is about whether you can live with ambiguity when the comma isn’t used or clarity when it is. Most of our lives are divided into that which is clear and that which is ambiguous.

Are you a gray area person who thrives in ambiguity, or are you a black and white person who thrives in the world of the absolute? Are you a little of both? Situation Ethics is derived from a modern-day interpretation of Existentialism which is a philosophical theory that thrives on ambiguity. The mother of contemporary Existentialism is Simone de Beauvoir whose classic book is The Ethics of Ambiguity. Situation Ethics declares, for example, that the situation determines what is wrong. The classic example is that we have been taught not to lie. You are living in Nazi Germany and a storm trooper comes to your door and asks if there are Jews hiding in your basement. Do you tell the truth or lie knowing that it would be certain death for those you are hiding if you are truthful?

Kantian ethics, on the other hand, believe that there are a set of universal moral standards that apply to all human beings, regardless of context or situation.

But let’s posit the thought that you agree with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s comment that “the truest sign of intelligence is the ability to entertain two contradictory ideas simultaneously.” This gives rise to the notion of cognitive dissonance which is defined in the same way.

Where would you put that Oxford Comma at that end of a sentence between two things that mean a great deal to you? Should they be seen as one where you would not necessarily add the comma or two separate entities that don’t necessarily go together and are in need of a comma?

Let’s consider some important dyads in our lives such as:

Hope and despair

Faith and doubt

Strength and weakness

Happiness and meaning

Joy and Sorrow

Wisdom and intelligence

Soul and psyche

Failure and learning

As we approach Holy Week there are two pieces of cognitive dissonance that we must reflect on to make the week as powerful as it could possibly be in terms of living in the day to day and becoming more and more spiritual in nature. They are the following:

Death and Resurrection

Teacher and Savior

God and Son

Who would have thought that such a small piece of punctuation could cause such big ripples in how we see important aspects of our lives? When you think about it, the Oxford Comma defines how you will go through Holy Week. Keep in mind that the disciples and the women at the tomb did not have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Like so many of us they went quickly into the world of ambiguity attempting to reach clarity of who this man on a cross and no longer in a tomb really was. That is the ongoing theme in our spiritual lives.

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