In It, But Not of It

A Christian must have a life ministry and proactive faith to positively influence the world.  There is a subtle underlying presumption to that truth, however:  to effectively influence the world, a Christian has to be in it.  By choosing to become a fighter pilot a Christian has elected to be deeply “in” the world, a choice that results in immense tension, a literal struggle between good and evil.  A Christian in the fighter pilot world faces immeasurable pressure to compromise his convictions to conform, and he confronts the struggle of trying to be an effective Christian witness to the fighter pilots around him.  The Christian fighter pilot’s eternal battle is how to be “in it but not of it”—to be different without necessarily being separate.  God has called the Christian to be salt in the world, and his salt needs to be in the meal that is the fighter pilot community.  Christians cannot separate themselves so far that their salt isn’t even in the same restaurant.  Nowhere in the Bible does God command Christians to segregate themselves from sinners—quite the contrary:  the Corinthian church once thought Paul had told them to do just that; he wrote to them and explained that the only way they could disassociate themselves from every sinner would be to “leave this world” (1 Corinthians 5:9-10).  Still, there are many aspects of the fighter pilot world from which Christians must shelter themselves to prevent becoming “of” the world.  The choices that a Christian fighter pilot makes in his life—choices between how he will separate or differentiate himself—will form the basis of his ministry and the framework of his “in but not of” life. 

Beginning early in pilot training a Christian will very gradually enter the fighter pilot world.  I received my introduction to “extracurricular” fighter pilot activities in T-38s.  Instructors and students would stay after work on Friday nights to drink alcohol and gamble in a game called “4/5/6.”  Then, each new assignment moves the fighter pilot progressively deeper into the fighter community, and he not only learns tactical skills but also how the fighter pilot life is supposed to be lived.  More than once I have had fighter pilots tell me that it’s not about the flying, as much fun as that is; they told me it was about the comradery, the drinking, and the traditions. 

I avoided much of the drinking and morally questionable traditions.  This led some pilots to take me aside and give me “guidance” to nudge me to the correct fighter pilot lifestyle.  I received similar counseling at each new place along the way, through T-38s, IFF, the B-course, and each of my operational assignments.  The speech basically went like this: 

Your failure to participate in event ‘x’ has been noticed.  You have to realize that these are the guys you’re going to train/war with.  Now, while we can’t make you go, we highly encourage you to attend the event next Friday.

Each time I was told that my failure to participate in what I considered morally questionable events was going to detract from my professional career; at one point I was even encouraged to reconsider my fighter pilot career.  Some fighter pilots seemed convinced that I would be an unsuccessful pilot if I didn’t participate in the basest detail of the fighter pilot social life.  Part of their desire to “set me straight” was based on their assessment of my attitude; when a person does not attend the social events of the squadron and appears to claim the moral high ground, he can develop the perception that he is “holier than thou” and thinks he is “too good” to be around everyone else.  Unfortunately, because I am not an extroverted person by nature, my socially-averse personality only furthered that perception.  Once begun, the opinion that a person is snobbish and aloof is difficult to overcome.  While it was not fact, the mere perception was enough to make the early days of each of my assignments uncomfortable.  While I didn’t want to yield in the places I felt I had a moral obligation, I also didn’t want to be perceived as standoffish merely because of my personality.
At one assignment, when I did not participate in some events I received the same speech, though it was somewhat unique.  I was told without hesitation that my work had been exceptional and my flying was above average.  I was also bluntly told that my failure to participate in certain unofficial squadron events would result in me not being placed in the position of flight commander, which was advertised as a coveted position.  It irritated me to be told that I was, for all intents and purposes, professionally doing everything “right,” but that I would be denied a job based on something outside of our profession.  While I bristled at the fact that an official job had an unofficial requisite, it was not a completely unexpected turn of events.  I was finally confronted with the important question:  if my principles (regardless of moral bearing) were in conflict with career progression, would I compromise them?

As far as some non-Christian pilots were concerned, I was on track to retire as a Major (rather than, perhaps, two ranks higher as a Colonel), because in their view I would never get promoted with the principles I was displaying.  The crux of the issue was my refusal to bend to the morals of the squadron.  I had made a conscious decision to do what I believed to be right and in God’s will, regardless of how the squadron, my leadership, and the Air Force viewed it.  I decided that I would perform my duty to the best of my ability and be the greatest asset I could to my profession and my country, but I would not compromise my principles.  Since I strived to make sure that my life choices were consistent with God’s will, if that meant that I retired at a less prestigious rank—or didn’t get to become a flight commander—then I believed that must be the result that God intended.  (I really hoped that I’d be promoted to four-star general so that I could prove that the moral way was the better way, but I was willing to accept the more realistic outcome…) 

Though I frequently received the this-is-how-it-is lecture near the beginning of my assignment, it was with some small pleasure that by the end of my tour I had become rather successful regardless of the fact that I had not changed my attitude or boundaries.  I left one unit as the air-to-ground top gun, meaning that my bombs had been more accurate than others’; at another, I left as one of the top flight leads, having upgraded without failing a ride in what was described as a “textbook” program by my squadron commander.  I did eventually become a flight commander, even without attending the events I was told were a requirement.  Many of the pilots came to respect my abilities, decisions, and the strength of my convictions.  As the days passed at each of my new assignments the squadron eventually realized that while I was “different,” I wasn’t “that bad,” and they saw that I could be a good pilot and personable peer without participating in every fighter pilot event. 

My experience with lectures and misperceptions is not entirely uncommon for a Christian fighter pilot; the counseling I received and “holier than thou” perception I developed are two obstacles that many have had to overcome.  Whether by his own actions or by simple misunderstandings, a Christian fighter pilot is often in a position where he feels he must excel above his peers to simply prove himself an equal.  I know that I have made correct decisions based on my Christianity that made me lose value in the sight of my peers, the very people to whom I wished to witness.  I knew then that I had to be exceptional professionally to overcome that deficit and earn their respect.  Anything less and I would be but another mediocre Christian to the men around me.  A Christian who is mediocre in his profession weakens his witness because he doesn’t have a credible leg on which to stand.  Fighter pilots don’t respect—or follow—mediocre men.  A Christian fighter pilot is not disadvantaged by his faith because God is not an impediment; however, he must prove to the non-Christian pilots not only that he can be a good pilot, but also that he can do so without lowering himself to the their worldly devices—that his faith is not an impediment, but an advantage.  The prophet Daniel is a sterling example of such a scenario.  Carried away in exile by Nebuchadnezzar, he resolved not to defile himself by eating the royal Babylonian food and wine (Daniel 1:8).  After a ten day test, he was able to prove that water and vegetables made him healthier than the other officials (Daniel 1:12-15).  With God’s blessing, Daniel would so distinguish himself as an advisor that the king planned to put him in charge of the entire kingdom (6:3).  Even though he was a Godly man in a pagan court, he excelled without compromising God’s word—though at times he had to “prove” his value.  Without lowering himself to their devices, Daniel was able to demonstrate that he could be “just as good” as—or better than—they.

Making choices to live a Christian life in an unChristian world is not easy.  I once heard a preacher say that in some ways the martyrs of old actually had an easier spiritual life.  Faced with the choice to deny God or die, they did not back down from their faith.  If asked what they would do in the same circumstances, most Christians today would probably say that they, too, would be willing to die for their faith.  But, as the preacher pointed out, it’s living for the faith that is often harder.  Explicit Biblical commands and moral absolutes are easy to understand; it’s the “gray areas” of life that are more difficult.  Even devout Christians—who claim they would die for the faith—have been known to set their cruise control 5 mph above the speed limit or watch a movie that, when pressed, they would confess was probably not appropriate.  So how does the Christian fighter pilot bring focus to the blur of gray?  The starting place has already been mentioned; to live a Christian life the fighter pilot should strive for the “fruit of the spirit,” as quoted from Galatians above.  In the same letter Paul also listed what a Christian fighter pilot should avoid:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious:  sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like (5:19-21).

The Biblical commands are clear; the spiritual goals (and their opposites) are evident.  The Christian fighter pilot must live his life and make his choices within these criteria.  Some aspects of the fighter pilot life will obviously be inconsistent with Christian living, and the correct choice will be clear even if the decision isn’t any easier to make.  Others may present a much more difficult choice, and the Christian fighter pilot must be spiritually prepared to make the correct decision.