From Middle Eastern espionage to church potlucks  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

In Ridley Scott’s action film, Body of Lies, the key moment comes not in an explosion (though plenty of bombs go off) but in a rather quiet moment of dialogue. C.I.A. agent Roger Ferris (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) meets Hani (played superbly by British actor Mark Strong), the head of Jordanian intelligence. Ferris has come to ask Hani’s aid in tracking down terrorists that have established a safe house in the Jordanian capital. Hani agrees, but insists on one condition. “Never lie to me,” he says.


On the surface Body of Lies exposes the dark underbelly of our dangerous world. Of how, if former CIA Middle East agent Richard Baer is correct in See No Evil, America’s intelligence agency has begun depending far too much on technology and far too little on developing human assets that can provide eyes and ears on the ground around the world. Of how much more dangerous the 21st century is compared to the decades of the Cold War.


On a deeper level, though, Body of Lies is a study of trust. The same element that disappeared in the world of high finance, and suddenly solid Wall Street firms crumbled like a house of cards.


“Most people are against lying,” Sallie Tisdale says in, "Tell Me the Truth," a wonderfully insightful essay on, “at least, they claim to be. Who knows if they’re telling the truth? Perhaps the only thing we can really agree on about lying is that everyone does it sometimes. The person who claims otherwise has simply told you the first one.” For Christians the stakes are high, because we claim to follow not simply the One who insists his followers tell the truth but that we seek to incarnate the One who claimed to be The Truth. Tisdale continues:


Certain lies are oil in the social machine, the ritual courtesies of daily contact. A little exaggeration, casting careful shadows and flattering light upon ourselves, upon each other. There are ordinary lies I’ve never told. I’ve never lied about my age or pretended my hair color was natural. I’ve never cheated on a test. But other lies come quickly. I've always found it hard to say, “I made a mistake,” and would exaggerate to protect my fragile self-esteem. Most of us lie in just this way: little deceits and quick dissimulations to spare ourselves from some impending small doom—social embarrassment, parental anger or spousal punishment.


These lies, the ones we claim to engage in for the sake of other people, are often meant to save ourselves from a little discomfort. No more, no less… So many ways to fail here. We lie by commission, by omission and with silence. We lie to get and to avoid having to pay the various prices extracted from us, to punish others and to avoid punishment. We lie to stay safe. Everyone lies.


When my good friend Ed Hague first showed me Tisdale’s piece my initial reaction was to ask whether she isn’t overstating the case. Everyone lies?


Church potlucks are an occasion for lying, I think. We ask one another “How are you doing?” and reply, as expected in this social ritual, “Great.” Sometimes that isn’t really true—the truth would be to say, “I’m not doing well, actually, but you aren’t a safe person to explain that to.” The real brokenness here is probably not the social ritual response which hides the truth but the breakdown of trust that sadly infects us so deeply.

This entry was posted at Thursday, November 06, 2008 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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