Christian Fighter Pilot Participation
What would God think?
Ultimately, the degree to which a Christian chooses to participate in “traditional” fighter pilot activities must be based on several things. First of all, a Christian must consider God. This is essentially the “big brother” question that is asked every day in the Air Force. During a fighter pilot’s combat or training sorties he will be forced to consider what his leadership will think of his decisions and their potential outcomes. If he feels that his leadership would support him, perhaps even if he fails, then he’ll probably execute his decision. If he decides that he may not be able to “answer the mail” about his judgment, then he’ll probably forego it or choose to accept the potential negative consequences. The Christian’s leadership is God. Would God be pleased by the actions that a fighter pilot takes and the activities in which he participates? Do they glorify God? Are they edifying? In the now famous words of the Christian youth movement, what would Jesus do?
While this sounds like a canned Sunday School question that prohibits virtually any fighter pilot activity, remember the New Testament: Jesus ate with prostitutes, traveled with fisherman, and contended with the religious elite—all things that the religious authorities of the time (mistaken though they were) considered inconsistent with the character of God.
Matthew, chosen by Jesus to be his disciple, was a tax collector, a profession of outcasts and sinners that worked for the occupying Romans and extorted money from fellow Israelites (Luke 19:1-8). When Jesus called Matthew to follow him, he went to his house and ate; many of those that were with him were Matthew’s peer tax collectors and others who are described as sinners. In the Jewish culture, eating with people was to consider them friends. The Pharisees saw this and criticized Jesus for associating with sinners; in their eyes, Jesus’ own credibility, reputation, and “witness” were weakened by his associations. His response, though, was simple:
It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9:9-13).
Jesus said that he had come for the sinners; they were his objective. While the Pharisees were hardly a righteous audience, there was still the perception that Jesus was participating in an unholy activity. Jesus was willing to do this because by associating with the “outcasts” He reached the lost He hoped to save.
Therefore the question “Would God be pleased with my actions?” does not imply that Christians cannot attend any fighter pilot related activity, because it is not God’s desire that Christians refuse to associate with sinners. It is those very sinners to whom they are called; Christians cannot separate themselves so far from the fallen that they can’t even reach to help them up. To witness to the world Christians must sometimes meet them on their turf. The bigger question is participation. God may approve of attending an event, just as Jesus attended socially with sinners—it may present the opportunity to interact and be a witness to others—but would He necessarily approve of participation? While Jesus’ example shows that Christians can justifiably associate with “sinners,” it does not give them carte blanche approval to participate in immoral events—Jesus ate with sinners, He didn’t join them in their sin. He spoke with prostitutes, but He didn’t patronize houses of prostitution. When choosing how much to participate in fighter pilot traditions, Christian fighter pilots must consider God. They must ask themselves if God would be pleased by their actions and the activities in which they participate.
What about You?
Second, a Christian must consider himself when determining his participation. Each individual best knows his own character; by this I mean a person’s physical, emotional, and spiritual strengths and weaknesses. A Christian with a weakness for alcohol will have different criteria than one who can’t stand the thought of drinking. One who gets TV commercial jingles stuck in his head easily will need to decide if he wants to expose himself to pilot songs, while another may have the mental discipline and spiritual strength to withstand such an onslaught. A Christian who is influenced or succumbs to pressure easily may need to be very careful in calling his fellow fighter pilots friends—harking back to every mother’s warning to “choose your friends wisely”—while another may be equally sociable with pilots and acquaintances from church without concern.
This self-assessment is not unlike the decision process that a fighter pilot will go through on a mission. Fighter aircraft aren’t the simple engine, wings, and gun that they used to be. There are hundreds of integrated systems that must work together to create an effective weapons platform. It is not unusual to have minor malfunctions that degrade the capability of an individual system. After the engine is started and the systems are powered, a pilot may see that a system is malfunctioning and call maintenance to see if they can repair it. Such a request is called a “redball;” a pilot with a radar problem would radio “Redball, radar” and avionics specialists would join him at the jet to see if they could fix his problem. Ultimately, the pilot must make a decision to accept or reject the aircraft for his mission. Depending on the level of the threat and the mutual support he can call on, he may determine that it is unsafe to fly into combat, or he may decide that the degraded system is not all that important. During OIF I once rejected a jet with a munitions problem because it would have prevented me from expending ordnance even to defend myself. On the other hand, I also took a jet into combat that had an inoperable gun, because recent sorties had demonstrated that there was little chance I would use the gun anyway. The choices were made based on the capabilities of the aircraft and the anticipated environment.
Fighter pilots must also assess the acceptable level of risk (ALR) associated with a mission. Sorties with a high ALR may demand that the target be destroyed—even if there are significant friendly losses in the process. A mission with a low ALR may dictate that no friendly losses are acceptable, even if it means the target is not attacked. Similarly, there are levels of risk associated with a Christian exposing himself to his non-Christian environment. The level of risk that a fighter pilot is willing to accept should be proportional to his capabilities; that is, his personal strengths and weaknesses. A Christian fighter pilot must understand his level of spiritual growth and personal maturity and then make decisions consistent with his assessment. If he exceeds his limits, he risks not only his witness but the strength of his convictions—the temptations of the world can be overwhelming. In the New Testament, Demas and Paul were “fellow workers,” but while Paul was able to continue his ministry, Demas “loved this world” and was lost (Philemon 24, 2 Timothy 4:10). While the exact details aren’t clear, Demas—at one point teamed with one of Christianity’s greatest evangelists—chose the world over Christ. It is wise for a fighter pilot to step out where he can reach the lost; it is unwise to expose himself unnecessarily to an area in which he knows he has a spiritual weakness. Thus a Christian fighter pilot needs to assess himself when determining his level of participation in fighter pilot events.
Third, when deciding how much to participate in fighter pilot activities, a Christian fighter pilot needs to consider his objective. The objective has two parts: motivation and target. First, what is the desired outcome of participating? Is the objective to build relationships with other pilots? Is the goal to appease the peer pressure to participate in the event? Is there a spiritual objective to reach a particular person or group? A Christian fighter pilot’s primary objective should be to spiritually impact the pilots around him. As already mentioned, Jesus’ actions while he was on this earth were consistent with His objective—He came to save the lost, which is why He associated with sinners to the chagrin of the religious leaders. The second “objective” is the target audience: to whom does the Christian fighter pilot want to be a witness? Who is it he’d like to influence? If his objective is to convert crusty old Colonels then his actions may be different than if his objective is to be a supportive Christian mentor to young Lieutenants barely out of pilot training. Either way, he must have a defined objective. If a Christian cannot answer to whom he is striving to be a witness then he is most likely a witness to no one. Knowing his objective is important; no mission can be successful without clearly defined objectives, and the same is true for those whose mission is to represent Christ to the world. A Christian’s motivation for his participation decision must be consistent with his spiritual goals, and he must know his target audience. With a clearly defined objective, he will be able to view his degrees of participation and attendance with the proper perspective and be assured that they are correctly motivated.
The Impact on the Christian Fighter Pilot Witness
Fourth, a Christian fighter pilot must assess whether his witness is helped or hindered by participation in a fighter pilot tradition. Participation may present or prevent an opportunity to witness to non-Christians. Importantly, however, a Christian is not a witness only to non-Christians; he also has a significant impact on his fellow Christian pilots. If a Christian fighter pilot chooses not to participate in morally questionable events, he risks distancing himself from the very pilots he hopes to evangelize, but he may lend significant spiritual support to his Christian audience, particularly those who are younger in their faith or who still hold tightly to a conservative and traditional Christian lifestyle. If he participates he may endear himself to non-Christian pilots and open doors for witness opportunities. Conversely, the most significant impact that a Christian pilot could have on a Christian audience would occur should he decide to participate in a questionable event.
By participating he may communicate to other Christian pilots that there is nothing wrong with doing so, or even that they need to participate in those events to be successful as a pilot and military officer. If he doesn’t also convey the limitations he places on his participation, he may inadvertently lead other Christians into sin if they subsequently choose to participate. This could lead to considerable confusion in a young Christian pilot who still sees the inherent inconsistency in a moral Christian attending an event laced with immorality. This is one case where I believe that Christians may not have the “freedom” to participate even if they feel there is benefit from doing so. If a Christian’s actions could be misperceived by another Christian, particularly a younger one (in spiritual, not physical, maturity), then it is extremely important to talk to that Christian before he falters because of the example he sees. If a Christian fighter pilot’s actions cause another Christian to stumble, then he needs to prayerfully consider whether it is the right time and place to be engaging in those activities. It may not be appropriate for another Christian to participate in the same events that he does, even if what he is doing isn’t inherently wrong. The fourteenth chapter of Romans goes into great detail in describing how the relative strengths of faith can affect what Christians should allow themselves to do. In the end, Paul says that so long as it is not a question of sin, one Christian may be able to rightfully do what another cannot. The caveat is emphasized, though, in verses 20 and 21, when Paul says that it is wrong for a Christian to do something if it causes his brother to stumble or fall—even if the act is not wrong itself.
Finally, a Christian’s decision to attend could potentially weaken another Christian’s moral argument. In one squadron, I chose not to participate in certain squadron events and based my decision on moral grounds; my actions in the squadron evidenced that and I was known as a moral pilot. An unfortunate detractor for me, though, was the activities of other pilots who were perceived as “moral.” Several fighter pilots in my squadron were members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and to the rest of the squadron the Mormons were very moral. They didn’t use profanity or drink alcohol, and they went to religious services on Sunday. However, the Mormon pilots did participate in many of the squadron activities that I did not; their ability to claim a moral high ground while still attending questionably moral events weakened my argument in the eyes of other fighter pilots. The non-Christian pilots couldn’t see any difference between Mormons and me; as far as they were concerned, if other religious pilots could attend and still be moral, then I should be able to as well. Therefore, there was no moral reason for me not to attend those events. Regardless of whether the spoilers were Mormon, Catholic, or Baptist, the observations of the non-Christian pilots were unfortunately logical. One Christian’s actions can positively or negatively impact the witness of another Christian. Both Christians should understand (even if they do not agree with) the other’s position so they can support each other to non-Christians.
When assessing the impact on a Christian witness to the various audiences, it’s worth noting the importance of perception. When I was a cadet I struggled with people thinking things about me that I did not think were true. Over the course of my freshman year someone talked to me about it and I put a summary of their words on my bulletin board: “Perception equals reality.” People instantly generate opinions of a person regardless (or in spite) of actual events, in the great tradition of not letting facts get in the way of a good story. Two people may draw completely different conclusions from the same situation. If non-Christian fighter pilots develop a perception that a Christian is “holier than thou,” or if Christian pilots develop the perception that another “Christian fighter pilot” is just a Sunday Christian, then the potential witness to those groups could be seriously harmed, regardless of whether or not the perceptions were accurate. Participation in fighter pilot events, therefore, needs to consider not only the factual aspects of the actions, but also the potential perceptions that the decision will generate.
Considering God, himself, his objective, and his witness are suggestions to help Christian fighter pilots decide if they should participate in certain events—to help them figure out where their “line in the sand” will be.
So, what should the Christian’s criterion be on whether or not he will attend, and where is his line in the sand? There are some positive aspects to the event: in sharing in the story telling and listening to the tactical arguments, he’ll build comradery with the squadron pilots and perhaps even increase his tactical knowledge of his aircraft. If he attends but chooses not to participate in the singing of the fighter pilot songs, he could be a potential witness to those that are, particularly if they claim to be Christians; if they’re not Christians but notice his silence, it could be a “door” to a witnessing opportunity. On the other hand, there are significant negative aspects to the evening. The evening will be laced with profanity: becoming desensitized to profanity is one of the greatest threats a Christian fighter pilot faces. Even if the Christian doesn’t participate in the entire event, he risks his silent presence being perceived as approval.
What should the Christian fighter pilot do? Would God be glorified by his attendance? Is the Friday night event edifying? Is he spiritually strong enough to attend without being spiritually harmed? Would going to the event appease the peer pressure, or would it serve a spiritual objective? Who does he hope to influence by going? What will other Christians think? Will his witness be helped or harmed by going? There is no single correct answer. Each Christian fighter pilot must make his decision. Whatever decision he makes, God will be his witness.