Monday, September 19, 2011

Light of the World - The Debt


I have recently gone through some psychologically challenging times. One of the struggles I faced was my own desire and ability to be a filmmaker. For me, story is king, and it seems as if storytelling is a declining art form. As I recently lamented the fact that Hollywood seems more concerned with financially viable films than films that tell a great story, The Debt arrived in theatres. My wife and I took in a “double feature” of The Debt and The Change-Up recently. Both films certainly had merit worthy of discussing in this forum. However, The Debt was the more philosophical of the two, and is first up for discussion.

The Debt tells the story of a group of three Mossad agents on assignment in East Berlin during the 1960's whose mission is to capture a NAZI war criminal and bring him back to Israel to stand trial. Upon their return to Israel, the agents are hailed as national heroes because they claimed to have killed the man as he attempted escape. But, they live with the knowledge of the secret truth of their mission: their target escaped before they were able to extricate him. Thirty years later, one of the agents' daughter has written a book memorializing the details of the mission. Much to the chagrin of the agents involved, their escaped target has seemingly resurfaced to tell the truth about the 30 year old botched mission.

“Be sure your sin will find you out!” That is my family's mantra. As a child, I knew that no matter what I did, there were either positive or negative consequences. I also knew that no matter what, my sins would come to light. I perhaps best learned this lesson during my senior year of high school. Our senior composition class had a community service requirement. The teacher mandated us to do a certain number of hours of community service each quarter or we would receive a failing grade. I challenged this requirement because I felt that: a) community service shouldn't be a requirement of a composition class; and: b) community service should be strictly voluntary not forced. My conviction was that my grade should be based upon my ability to write the required papers not pick up trash on the side of the highway. I determined to call my teacher's bluff. I refused to do the community service requirement during the first quarter of the class.

Much to my surprise (or maybe not), when grade cards came out after the first quarter, I received my one and only “F” outside of a math class in my academic career! I knew that if I showed that grade card to my mom I would lose my Nintendo, TV, playing with friends, and every other privilege I held dear. I was determined she would never see that grade card! I also knew that I had to begrudgingly do the community service requirement for the rest of the school year. I made it almost through the entire second quarter without my parents finding out about my grade card. Surprisingly, neither one ever asked if they had come out. If my mom wasn't so involved in my academic life, I might have never been caught in my deceit!

She attended parent-teacher conferences during the second quarter and on a whim talked to my composition teacher. My composition teacher was more surprised that it took my mom that long to talk to her about my failing grade. When I arrived home from work that night, I found out that my sin had found me out! My mom understood my position based on the principle of the matter. She wasn't upset that I took an “F” intentionally. She was beyond pissed that I had kept the grade hidden from her. Surprisingly, I didn't lose privileges, but I did have to write an essay of apology to my teacher, which she was to read, sign, and return as proof that I had followed through.

The main focus of my essay was “be sure your sin will find you out!” Our family has always used the text of Joshua 6 & 7 - “Aachan's Sin” to illustrate the point. In brief summary: God commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy Jericho, taking no plunder; Aachan took plunder; the Israelites were severely routed at Ai as punishment for Aachan's sin; tribe-by-tribe, clan-by-clan, family-by-family, Aachan was weeded out and put to death for his sin.

As I watched The Debt, I couldn't help but recall the story of Aachan. Despite the appearance of a successful mission, it had failed. The failure was omitted in the official report because an overall goal had been achieved. The later consequences of the failure led to a choice about future action.
The appearance of success came about because the target disappeared into the night. The failure of the mission was not capturing and bringing to justice a man who had committed numerous atrocities in concentration camps. The operatives discuss their options after their subject escapes. They understand their two choices: tell the truth and be regarded as failures; or fabricate a story that the man attempted escape and they killed him. They reason that the second option will be the best based on the fact that Israel needs a hero(es) and that their escaped prisoner will never be able to resurface because he knows Israel wants to capture him.

The overall goal was to punish this man for his past crimes and to eliminate him as a threat to Israel and the Jews. By being captured and held for days by the agents, the criminal was put on notice that his sins would not go unpunished. Even after escaping, he couldn't risk recapture, so he was in essence neutralized as a threat because his ability to function “above ground” was rendered impotent.

The later consequence came 30 years after the escape when rumors of the would-be prisoner still being alive in Ukraine were spreading. The agents again face a choice: continue to lie to protect their reputations or tell the truth and be regarded as frauds. The biggest hindrance to telling the truth is that one of the agents' daughter has just published a book detailing the success of the 30 year old mission. Not only would telling the truth be detrimental to the agents, but the daughter would be mocked as well. They choose to perpetuate the lie while at the same time attempting to find their target again in order to kill him and keep their deceit alive. One of the operatives is uncomfortable with that decision and throws himself in front of a bus. The other two conspire to carry out the plan. While the ultimate goal is achieved, death is the inevitable result for all involved. The truth of the entire matter is then revealed.

I had about an hour between movies to sit and ruminate on The Debt. I think the film does a fantastic job of asking the question: how far are you willing to go to achieve success? The three operatives want to gain promotion and glory. Telling the truth probably would have resulted in demotion. In order to attain what they desire, they fabricate a lie that sounds plausible enough to be passed off as truth. Their deceit was in essence a truth because for their escaped prisoner to live “underground” for the rest of his life was practically a death.

This begs the question: is stretching the truth still a lie? Is omitting some facts while admitting others the same as complete fabrication?

As I found out thirteen years ago (has it been that long?!), omission is just as grievous an offense in partnership with deceit as the commission of the sin requiring (so we think) deceit to cover it up. Lying is a dangerous exercise, because it requires us to keep track of our lies. It is exhausting to try to remember what part of the story you have fabricated and to whom you have revealed different portions or lies to. Telling the truth, while not always as initially rewarding, is a much less stressful exercise. I went over two months having to hide my grade card in places I knew or hoped my parents would never look. I had to sit at the dinner table and avoid getting involved in any discussion about grades or grade cards. I lived in fear and yet longed to be found out. If only I had the courage to confess my sin, perhaps the consequence would not have been as great. As painful as it was to be found out, it was liberating to know that I no longer had to keep up my charade!

Jesus truly was right when he said, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32b).

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Timothy! What a recollection of the past as relevant to the present. Great post!