The Line in the Sand
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. Potential decisions in every situation may be different even among Christians because people are different. There are Christians with the spiritual strength to be deeply in the world and yet not be phased by it; there are also Christians in the world who struggle just keeping themselves from becoming part of the world. There are Christian fighter pilots that are called to be a light to the other non-Christian pilots, and there are those that are called to disciple the younger Christian ones. There are a multitude of degrees of attendance and participation when it comes to the events and occasions of a fighter pilot life. Fighter pilot events themselves range from the harmless and fun to the vulgar and evil. There is no single cookie-cutter answer that will fit every person, personality, place, and party. Each Christian fighter pilot must make his decision based on prayer, discernment, discretion, prudence, common sense, and wisdom. Is it likely that a Christian pilot will be criticized by other fighter pilots for not participating in certain fighter pilot traditions? Definitely. On the other extreme, is it possible that some religious and moral people may furrow their brows at a Christian’s actions as a fighter pilot, just as the Pharisees did at Jesus? Most certainly. The concerns of non-Christians have already been addressed. With respect to religious criticisms, if a Christian is right with God in all he chooses to do—which includes the perceptions that younger Christians may develop because of his actions—then their discontent may not be his concern.
The Christian’s line in the sand may depend on the situation, but he needs to decide what that line is ahead of time, be prepared to defend it (in theological or secular terms, as appropriate), and stick by it. The reason is simple. Beyond the internal struggle of deciding good and evil, a Christian fighter pilot faces a more basic challenge to making the right choice: peer pressure. The stereotypical fighter pilot is the break-all-the-rules maverick who pushes the boundaries, goes it alone, and uses his “I know better than they do” attitude to win the war (and the girl). Reality is a slightly different story. Air Force fighter pilots have a host of regulations they are required to follow both in flight and in their professional lives. As a whole, the Air Force prefers to err on the conservative side, so a saying has developed that “if the regs don’t say you can do it, then you can’t.” (The Navy, which has a slightly more liberal reputation, has the saying that “if the regs don’t say you can’t do it….”) Where the rules stop, the pressure of fellow fighter pilots steps in. Whether good, bad, or indifferent, fighter pilots face pressure from their peers to act a certain way. The result is that a fighter pilot isn’t the stereotypical individualist or nonconformist—rules, regulations, and ridicule cause him to act in a manner that is consistent with the rest of the group. Whether it is “safety in numbers” or “mob mentality” (either of which could accurately convey a fighter pilot perspective), fighter pilots tend to act like a herd. When one fighter pilot is different, he sticks out from the pack, and the pressure to conform is immense.
The best way a Christian fighter pilot can make Godly choices in the face of this pressure is to have made up his mind ahead of time. In that sense, participating in fighter pilot events is much like dating: a person must decide ahead of time how he will conduct himself, because once he’s “out there” he will face immense pressure and temptation. The strength of his Christ-centered convictions—firmly decided ahead of time—will be his guide. The location of a Christian fighter pilot’s line in the sand should be governed by a balance of himself, his fellow Christians, and his non-Christian peers. Some lines may be necessary to protect the Christian himself: “I can’t cross this line because I’ll sin or dishonor God.” Some lines may be drawn with other Christians in mind: “I know I can go further than this, but if that young Christian pilot sees me, he may not understand and may stumble as a result.” Other lines may be drawn with the objective of reaching the lost: “This line is a little out of my comfort zone, but it’s not wrong, and I’ll be able to reach that non-Christian pilot I’ve noticed.” Whatever the logic and reason, a Christian fighter pilot must define the limits of what he is and is not willing to do in the fighter pilot world.
For example, I have come to the personal conclusion that while I do not believe alcohol is morally wrong, I have never seen any good come out of it. In the fighter pilot culture, there is rarely such a thing as “a” drink. When the social opportunity presents itself, many fighter pilots imbibe until they are literally falling down drunk. In my opinion, such excess, which occurs because alcohol is essentially “on” or “off,” is a definitive example of immaturity—and a dangerous example at that, given the “liberating” effects of alcohol. I once heard a successful general officer give a speech in which he said he had never done anything of which he was ashamed; nothing he wouldn’t tell his wife, his boss, or his pastor—except, that is, when he had been drunk. When filled with liquid courage he had broken things, stolen things, and done things of which he was ashamed—and would never relate to those important to him. Unfortunately, I don’t believe his speech had the “sobering” effect he intended on the audience. In the adult fighter pilot world, getting drunk is just not that big of a deal, and the buffoonery that goes on while drunk is often seen as part of the “game.” For those reasons and others, I do not drink. That “line in the sand” is easy, but the decision is always more complex. Many people—both Christian and non-Christian—think that non-drinking is religiously related, and I must consider how my choice impacts my relationships with them. Will I go to social events at which alcohol is served? Yes, I will; I feel that the chance of a negative perception from non-drinking Christians is minimal, and the chance of a positive impact in my interaction with those around me is greater. However, in that same social event I would not hold someone’s drink, nor would I purchase alcohol for someone else. In my opinion, the potential damage to my witness because of a negative perception outweighs any possible benefit. By deciding that line in the sand ahead of time, I’m not forced to spontaneously generate and defend an answer; I’m equipped to communicate my spiritual and secular reasons to those who ask, and it may even present a witness opportunity.
Another line in the sand that was more difficult for me to draw was at my Naming, which can be read here. A similar event on a much smaller scale occurs at the fighter pilot Friday night event. I saw the beginnings of this when the members of my pilot training class gambled and drank in the flight rooms on Friday after work. At IFF, the members of my class “pushed it up” every Friday night. In aviation, “pushing it up” refers to increasing the throttle setting; e.g., pushing the throttle up. In the fighter pilot culture, the phrase refers to a night of partying and heavy drinking. Because I knew vaguely what the group was doing I abstained from their escapades and the peer pressure to attend was light. Early the next week I would hear portions of their Friday night exploits as they recounted their legends at work; most involved a great deal of inebriation, someone vomiting on the hood of a car, and escapades with the employees of the local strip clubs. Because of their unique training environment, the pilot training and IFF events were somewhat different than those of the operational fighter community. In an operational squadron on a Friday night, the pilots gather at the squadron bar (every fighter squadron has one) to tell funny stories about each other and regale others with tales of other pilots’ missteps throughout the week. Some of the more experienced pilots will relate their war stories and argue tactics. There will be a significant amount of drinking, profanity, and the singing of fighter pilot songs.
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.