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The Air Force Considers Racism an Issue Big Enough to Tank Its Mission. What About the Church?


Leadership at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) was outraged earlier this week after finding racial slurs on its preparatory school campus. So outraged the superintendent held a special meeting with Academy cadets to make sure they understood that racism could tank their mission.

Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria’s words were strong, to the point and incredibly timely considering recent events such as Charlottesville and the NFL player protests.

“You should be outraged not only as an airman but also as a human being,” Lt. Gen. Silveria told the cadets. He left no room for interpretation when he told the group of 4,000 students, “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”

The Air Force Times reports racial slurs were written on the whiteboards outside the dorm rooms of five black cadet candidates at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School earlier this week. The incident prompted Lt. Gen. Silveria, his staff and the entire faculty of the USAFA to hold a special meeting with the cadets to ensure everyone understood the Air Force has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to racism.

The racial slurs, containing the words “go home, n*****r,” were found on the whiteboards Monday, September 25, 2017 at the USAFA’s prep school near Colorado Springs, Colorado. This prep school is located on the Air Force Academy base, but is operated separately from the Academy. Each year, about 240 students who hope to enter the Academy as freshmen after 10 months of training go through the prep school. The cadet candidate responsible for writing the slurs has not been identified but has lost his or her chance of joining the freshman class next year.

After the incident in Charlottesville in August, the Academy held discussions with the cadets to help them process the event. Lt. Gen. Silveria said there was a lot of positive feedback articulating the efficacy of those discussions.

What the church and the Air Force have in common

In many ways, the Air Force and the church are similar. The two institutions are made up of people committed to a common cause. For the Air Force, a common desire to defend the nation unites its members. The church is concerned with knowing Jesus and making him known to a hurting world. It’s a mission that literally has eternal implications. As wonderful as America is, the church’s mission is infinitely more important than the Air Force’s.

Another thing the two institutions have in common is the diversity of the people who form their ranks. The global church is composed of people from every tribe, tongue and background. This is beautiful because it proves the point that God is Lord over all. We all came from the same Father. If anyone should be able to find value in people of different skin color, ideologies, gender and cultures, it should be the church.

The church can learn from the Air Force’s response

Lt. Gen. Silveria’s speech to the cadets was recorded and definitely worth watching. He talked about the power the diversity present in the Air Force affords the group. Not only is the group racially diverse, but Lt. Gen. Silveria also mentioned the various walks of life, parts of the country, gender and upbringing the group represents. This diversity is not a problem to be overcome, but rather a strength of the organization.

It should tell us something that an institution that has a mission as critical as the United States Air Force—commissioned to protect the livelihood and safety of an entire nation—feels racism has the potential to jeopardize its mission. One has to wonder: Shouldn’t the church feel the same way? And have a similar response to racism?

The Air Force responded quickly to the incident that happened on its property involving its own members. They also responded appropriately when the Charlottesville riots occurred, which didn’t occur on its property or with its own members. Both incidents elicited action from leadership. I’m not trying to make the point that the Air Force does everything right because that’s simply not true. Rather, there are things the American church can learn from their prompt response in these situations.

I was disappointed that more pastors didn’t do something like the USAFA did after the Charlottesville incidents. Holding discussions, helping people through the trauma of being re-victimized, and simply understanding what was happening are all very healthy things to do. It’s something people in leadership should initiate. However, many churches failed to respond to the moment. The truth is, we still have a problem with racism. Even in post-civil-rights-movement-America. Even, I hate to say it, in the church. This becomes clear when we fail to discuss these incidents and when we continue to meet in congregations separated by race.

Lt. Gen. Silveria told the cadets “I would be naive and we would all be naive to think that everything is perfect here.” I believe we can say the same within the church in America.

So my questions for the church are these: Do we consider racism a problem that can potentially tank the mission? Do we feel the need to address it as swiftly and emphatically as the Air Force does? What are we doing to ensure we are not being naive about racism within our own walls?

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Megan Briggs is a writer and editor for churchleaders.com. Her experience in ministry, an extensive amount of which was garnered overseas, gives her a unique perspective on the global church. She has the longsuffering and altruistic nature of foreign friends and missionaries to humbly thank for this experience. Megan is passionate about seeking and proclaiming the truth. When she’s not writing, Megan likes to explore God’s magnificent creation.