It is possible that a Christian who adheres to Christian priorities may be persecuted as a result, though in the modern Air Force blatant personal persecution is rare; I have never experienced it in my short career. What is a Christian fighter pilot to do in the face of persecution?
Don’t Seek It
First, Christians should not seek it. Christian fighter pilots should not make decisions with the intent of inflicting self-suffering and intentionally drawing persecution, even as a “confirmation” of their spirituality. The attitudes of “look how much I’m suffering for my faith” and “look how humble I am” may give a degree of self-satisfaction, but they produce little positive results. The Christian must live a stand-out life, but he should do so to prick the conscience of the non-Christians around him, not be a thorn in their sides. A Christian does not need to be contrary, disloyal, or argumentative. He should never compromise his faith, but when his Christian values allow choices that are amenable to a greater number of people there is nothing wrong with making a less controversial decision. Some decisions a Christian fighter pilot will make will have nothing to do with morality—if he insists on making unpopular amoral ones then he may only increase the discord he has with non-Christians. A Christian that makes a choice that is unpleasant to himself but unrelated to a moral right or wrong will make the fewest waves among his fellow pilots.
By choosing not to “rock the boat” unnecessarily he can minimize the secular strife he experiences. Such decisions will lay the foundation for an amiable relationship that will aid his ability to be a strong Christian witness. Avoiding being constantly contrary also strengthens his credibility when his morals do dictate that he go against the flow. I will return to the example of alcohol. Aside from those that believe associating with alcohol in any form is forbidden, most Christians would be open to discussion on what is permissible. If a Christian fighter pilot was inclined to shun alcohol in any form and avoided all functions at which it was present, he might risk “persecution” because alcohol permeates so much of the fighter pilot world—he would probably never socially associate with his peers and be criticized as a result. On the other hand, if he at least allowed himself to attend events where alcohol was present—arguably no less moral of a decision—then he might gain favor with his comrades and reduce his potential exposure to “persecution.” Making a less contentious—but no less moral—choice can prevent unnecessary conflict. A Christian living in an unChristian world will have enough conflict without adding to it on his own. Obviously, this logic can be misconstrued: if going to events with alcohol is permissible and will reduce persecution, then surely having a drink with the other pilots is even better—so getting drunk with them must be the best thing to do. The ability to have an acceptable “range” of decisions must be restricted to the bounds of absolute Christian values.
Don’t Be Foolish
Second, if a Christian feels as though he is being persecuted, he should be sure that he is suffering for the sake of righteousness and is not being ostracized because he’s offensive, rude, foolish, or obnoxious. A Christian should not be quick to cry “persecution.” Conflict will happen; claiming religious discrimination every time it does will cause others to believe a Christian is a self-proclaimed martyr using religion as a crutch. Simply being a Christian and “mistreated” does not necessarily equal persecution. Many a street corner Bible thumper has proudly hailed their time in jail as suffering like Paul; they ignore the legal advice to obtain a permit so they can evangelize without punishment. If a Christian breaks the law or even merely violates common sense he will be justifiably rebuked by those around him, regardless of any religious affiliation the situation may have had. As an example, many Christians are familiar with the encouragement to “pray continuously,” and some Christians in the military may feel the need to do just that to make it through the day. A Christian should take that advice to heart, but qualify it in the workplace: if a fighter pilot is constantly ducking out to pray and his supervisor is consistently unable to find him, he’ll bear the wrath of a righteously angry boss (just as a smoker would for constantly being on a smoke break). The same is true if other “higher priorities” interfere with work, like spending time on a government phone with a spouse (supporting the “family priority”).
While some might argue that such activities were permissible as long as the quality of work didn’t suffer, a Christian fighter pilot who spent such time on non-work related tasks could still generate the perception of neglecting his job. A supervisor can rightfully expect that his subordinates should work during duty hours—and, perhaps more importantly, a Christian’s peers can rightfully expect that he shoulder his share of the load. There is a time and a place for everything, and sometimes it’s the time to work—even if there is a desire to spend time on a “higher priority.” For a Christian to be asked to accomplish his duties is not religious persecution. Lt Col Terry Stokka, a retired Air Force navigator and Christian officer, recounted a story about a navigator who would read his Bible while his aircraft was passing through thunderstorms out over the ocean, rather than monitoring the storms and assisting in guiding the aircraft around them. When the members of his crew expressed their displeasure with his priorities (placing his religion above them), he felt that he was being persecuted for his faith. He didn’t understand that he was being “persecuted” for mistreating his crewmates.
In early 2006, Navy Lieutenant (Chaplain) Gordon James Klingenschmitt attended a protest news conference in which the participants called on the President to sign an executive order allowing Chaplains to pray “in the name of Jesus Christ.” The protest was in response to increasingly restrictive regulations produced by the Air Force and Navy. A few weeks after the event, Chaplain Klingenschmitt received notice that he was going to be punished by the Navy for disobeying orders and wearing his uniform at a partisan political event. The Chaplain maintained that he was being punished for praying in uniform outside of a divine service, which violated the most recent change in Navy policy. To make his point, he turned down administrative punishment in favor of a court martial. The Chaplain’s grandstanding and claims of religious persecution when he was (by his own admission) violating non-sectarian regulations caused him to lose credibility in the eyes of even those who might sympathize with him.
In each circumstance that a Christian dishonors his superiors or his peers while using religious rationale he tends to harm Christ’s kingdom more than help it. Those that are “persecuting” him view him as foolish not for religious reasons but for secular ones; when he draws up a religious shield in response (i.e., plays the martyr), his peers see his Christianity with the same disdainful view.
How to Respond
Finally, the possibility exists that a Christian fighter pilot may be truly persecuted for his faith. Incidents of “religious friction”—from slight offense to discrimination—occur relatively frequently in the military, just as any other form of conflict in an organization with hundreds of thousands of members. The majority of occurrences are resolved at very low levels and are thus kept out of the public eye. Some instances could be classified as religious discrimination and would be considered illegal within the military justice system. The primary regulation regarding the military and religious accommodation is Department of Defense Directive (DoDD) 1300.17 (13 November 2003). In the Air Force, Chapter 8 of Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2706, Military Equal Opportunity Program (29 July 2004) addresses religious accommodation. Both are relatively short and worth reading. If a military officer or action contravenes either of these two regulations then a wrong has occurred. While the regulations do contain a few specific examples, there is obviously significant room for interpretation. A blatant example would be a pilot being patently told that he was passed over for a job because of his religion. Other instances of persecution might be more subtle or less defined; for example, a Christian refuses to go with the group to a strip club and is verbally derided and harassed about it for the next few weeks.
A Christian fighter pilot’s initial response to personal persecution should be to “rise above it.” First, to yield is to bend to those who would harass him. Like the child or teenager that finally succumbs to peer pressure, a Christian who changes his behavior because of persecution will only admit defeat. Second, if he becomes overly defensive he implies that God is insufficient; otherwise he wouldn’t need to worry about the words (or even the sticks and stones) of those who would persecute him. I believe that “nothing” is an appropriate reaction for personally perceived persecution; however, more action is required if the persecution affects other Christians, if it exceeds the thresholds of what an individual can handle with no response, or if the discrimination is institutionalized. For persecution that affects other Christians or that can no longer be ignored, a Christian should prayerfully consider beginning at the lowest level and working his way up in an effort to correct the wrong. The persons responsible should be confronted not in an antagonistic way but in such a way that he knows the offense he has caused.
Realistically, few cases progress beyond this point of grievance reporting systems. Generally, an action is changed or an apology made long before any other action is required. If the offender refuses to hear the concern or continues in his path, the next step is to seek redress through the chain of command. In cases that cannot be solved with the chain of command (or when the offender is in the chain of command), the offended party can talk to the Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) office, which will begin an investigation to determine if the religious aspects of military regulations were violated. If those agencies do not adequately address the issue, a complaint can be made through the Inspector General’s (IG) office, which is essentially responsible for overall oversight within the military.
All of these avenues will take time to run their course, and the agencies involved should be given the opportunity to perform their assigned duties. If the IG is unable to resolve the issue, there is at least one higher level of official complaint. In what is known as a “congressional,” a military member can lodge a complaint directly with his Congressman. The Congressman’s staff then calls on the military commander (often the General or Colonel in charge of the base) to investigate and generate a report. If a Christian feels the need to take this route, he should first ensure he has exhausted all other means. In the past, well-meaning but naïve airmen have immediately called their Congressman over inconsequential matters; the “bad press” that it provides the base, as well as the fact that the chain of command is entirely vaulted over, can cause hard feelings among those involved (even if they sympathize with the one making the complaint). If the complaint is still not resolved, the offense may be systemic and channels outside the Air Force may need to be explored. For responses to these and other institutionalized religious issues, see the article on the Christian Response.
Continuing to live the Christian life in the face of persecution is difficult—particularly if it is subtle, constant, harassing, and legal. Christians must depend on God’s strength and rest in the mutual support of Christian fellowship.