"When you give of yourself, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving will be done in secret." Matt. 6:3-4a
Argo is a declassified tale of real-life events that transpired in 1979 and 1980 during the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
While 52 Americans were held hostage after militant students broke into the United States Embassy in Tehran, six escaped into the homes of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (played here by Victor Garber) and (though not represented in the film) Canadian immigration officer John Sheardown.
Meanwhile in the U.S., CIA specialist Tony Mendez (portrayed by Argo director Ben Affleck) engineers a fantastic scheme to extract the six hiding with the Canadian officials: in the wake of the science fiction renaissance brought on by Star Wars in the late 1970s, Mendez will travel to Iran as a Canadian film producer looking to film a low budget sci-fi adventure in the exotic locale of Tehran and leave a few days later with his six-person "production crew," that is the six American diplomats.
The ruse seemed so fantastic it was believable. To ensure credibility, Mendez brings Hollywood into the act by bringing aboard sci-fi make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). They develop storyboards, scripts, marketing, and actors - all kept in the dark on the ultimate purpose of their work: to save American lives overseas.
For years, President Jimmy Carter, along with the real-life Ambassador Taylor, Sheardown, Mendez, Chambers, the six diplomats, as well as all those in the White House, State Department, and CIA who were involved with this covert operation, kept quiet on the details. It wasn't until 1997 when President Bill Clinton declassified this story.
Secrets can often lead to corruption, but in this circumstance, it saved lives.
There is always a delicate balance between keeping information hidden, and we're not just talking about CIA missions or declassified stories. When it comes to our relationships with others, we don't want to exclude others from the facts; but at the same time, there is a place for discretion.
We live in the tension: What do we share with others? What do keep to ourselves? Which of our actions should be tell others about? Which should we keep hidden?
During one of his most memorable teaching moments in the New Testament, Jesus dealt with this internal conflict. In the Sermon on the Mount, he spoke of three instances where secrecy is not only allowed, but encouraged: in our prayer, in our fasting, and in our almsgiving.
"When you give of yourself, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving will be done in secret." (Mt. 6:3-4a) We live in a time when self-promotion is the norm, when reality television demands that nothing be kept secret. Jesus' words increasingly fall on deaf ears.
Even in our churches, charities, and schools, we engrave plaques with donors and give prizes for those who do the most community service. Practicing churchgoers often wear clothing, jewelry, or drive in cars labeled in a way that tells the world about one's religiosity.
Yet, despite other less-than-admirable actions, the CIA can teach us a lesson in discretion.
In Argo, one could argue that, even though he is credited for Spock's ears in Star Trek, Herman Munster's look in The Munsters, and the primates in Planet of the Apes, John Chambers' greatest accomplishment was saving the lives of six diplomats, not to mention Tony Mendez, Ambassador Taylor, and others in the Canadian embassy. And for twenty years, he had to keep it completely secret. His truest masterpiece was never to be known.
The same goes for Mendez, the Canadian government, and Jimmy Carter, who - in part - lost the 1980 election due to the public's assessment that he had been successful rescuing anyone from Tehran. Their secrecy not only helped those stranded in Iran, but also reminded us of the importance of Jesus' words: "do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."
It should also remind us not to judge others too quickly for their seeming lack of charity, spirituality, or discipline. Perhaps, in secret, they are doing what Mendez, Chambers, and others once did. Let us also remember that Jesus follows up his statements on discreet prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (in Matthew chapter 6) with an admonition against judging one another (in Matthew chapter 7).
So is there a dividing line between what should kept secret and what should be shared? I believe so, yet I also think that such a line is different for each person. In their hearts, they will know when they are pushing the envelope too far, stepping over that line for one's own glory. When we act with humble hearts and do what is right for God, for ourselves, and for others, we will know what is best.
In the meantime, let us pray (discreetly, of course) that our minds and hearts will be more occupied by our desire to do those good things for the Kingdom of God - rather than to worry about how often we should reveal those deeds to the world.