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Social Justice: A chaplain's perspective

The 325th Fighter Wing religious affairs team poses for a photo at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, March 4, 2020. The team recently received the Air Combat Command Terence P. Finnegan Outstanding Medium Chapel Team Award. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Magen M. Reeves)

The 325th Fighter Wing religious affairs team poses for a photo at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, March 4, 2020. The team recently received the Air Combat Command Terence P. Finnegan Outstanding Medium Chapel Team Award. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Magen M. Reeves)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
Over the last several weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time, thought, and emotion on the subject of social justice, more specifically racial justice. It has been on my mind and in my heart for years, really, but recent events beginning with the death of George Floyd and continuing with the nation’s response, have brought it more to the front for all of us, myself included.

To say that I’ve been experiencing some emotions would be an understatement. I am saddened that, as a nation and a people committed to freedom, we have yet to come to a place where all experience freedom to the same degree. Amazed and proud that so many are rising to the occasion and demanding that we do better. Disappointed that, in some corners of our public life, there is still silence or indifference. Confused by the fact that decades after the Civil Rights Movement began, we still have not come further. Even guilt when I realize how much privilege I enjoy as a white male officer. There’s more going on inside my heart and mind as well, these things just scratch the surface.

Like every issue we face, there is a spiritual side to social and racial justice. Being a healthy Airman, we know, has physical, mental, social, and spiritual components. When we ignore any of those pieces we end up harming the whole, or at least fail to be the best as Airmen, as human beings. As a chaplain, I also know and respect that our spiritual side takes many different forms. We do not all believe in the same way. But however we believe, whatever we believe in, those beliefs play a part in wrestling with everything we face as individuals and communities.

For me, the spiritual side of social justice and racial justice is rooted in my faith. At the beginning of the book I call scripture, I read that every human being was created in the image of God. Every human being. Not just those that look or think or believe like me. When I start with that understanding of humanity, it isn’t possible for me to treat some people as worth more or less than others. I just can’t go there if I believe there is something special, something unique and incredible about every human. You may think of it differently than I, perhaps as a spark of uniqueness, the fact that we humans are far more complex than the collection of cells that make up our physical selves. However you choose to see it, every human life is special.

My church also teaches us that we must respect the dignity and freedom of every human being. It is a promise we make over and over when we gather. That promise means that if I treat a person of color as lesser than myself, consciously or unconsciously, I have failed. I am not living up to the spiritual promises I’ve made, and I need to do better. We can all do better.

I am also aware that faith has often been used to justify slavery and segregation. I wish I could say I have the answers on how to address that, but I do know that awareness is the first step. Being aware of how my beliefs have been used to keep people down, not lift them up, is the start of a process of healing. Being aware of thoughts that are normally unconscious, about assumptions I make about the people around me, is the start to making things better.

Living with a global pandemic has isolated us in ways I never thought possible. But we cannot address these issues alone—it must be as a community and in conversation with each other. I and the Chaplain Corps here at Tyndall would like to be part of that conversation. Look us up any time. But also lean on your fellow Airmen, families, faith communities, mentors, and more. We have to face this issue head on and start the conversations. Ignoring these issues won’t help us heal.

In coming together, we have the chance to be better today than we were yesterday, and to make tomorrow better still for all our sisters and brothers.