Thunderbirds and Airshow Evangelism for Empire

Crossposted from As of Yet Untitled

This weekend has seen the death of 10 people in two different crashes at air shows. My own experience at the Chicago Air and Water show this summer has had me reflecting on this cultural phenomenon and its importance to U.S. patriots. If you want to skip the philosophical background, you can jump to the Thunderbirds as Evangelists section below.

This summer I read the Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. I’ve found his lens of the five moral foundation theory to be a quite useful framework over the last few years for understanding liberal and conservative morality. In this book he looks at the things that make for happiness, drawing on ancient religious texts as well as the philosophical traditions juxtaposed with modern science and changing views of human psychology.

Haidt, a Jewish atheist, also looks at the emotions and sense experienced in conjunction with our sense of the divine, a sentiment closely linked with that of purity. Divinity and purity are contrasted with those things that are disgusting and unclean. This is a vocabulary that is familiar to Christians from the Levitical purity codes all the way through Revelation.

Haidt also relates this moral spectrum to a specific human emotion: that of transcendent awe, which Haidth describes thusly:

Awe: “A person percieves something vast (usually physically vast, but sometimes conceptually vast, such as a grand theory; or socially vast, such as great fame or power); and the vast thing cannot be accommodated by the person’s existing mental structures… By stopping people and making them receptive, awe created an opening for change, and this is why awe plays a role in most stories of religious conversion. (p. 203)

Haidt points out that this sense of awe is often connected with our religious belief. It got me thinking about the way this works in the United States with patriotism and our adoration of the flag and other symbols of the United States.

Thunderbirds as Evangelists

Last month I walked my bike through the Chicago Air and Water show on my way home along the shore of Lake Michigan. I’ve heard about these gatherings all of my life, but I’d never experienced one. I knew that these shows were popular places for showing off the military’s coolest toys and recruiting new soldiers and that there were lots of cool tricks with planes.

As I walked, I watched the impressive rolls and twists of the stunt pilots flying over-head. However the moment that seared itself into my imagination came after I had stopped looking at the sky and was walking out of the main area of the show. Suddenly, I heard a massively load roar nd glanced up to see four F-16 fighter jets in tight formation flying by at hundreds of miles an hour. It felt like there were just a hundred yards or so away out over Lake Michigan.

In that moment, I gained a new insight into the role that these shows play in the civil religion of the United States. I felt that sense of awe that Haidt describes as I experienced something outside my existing mental structure. While I theoretically understood what I was witnessing, it was quite another thing to hear, see and feel that raw power and speed so close.

These four F-16 fighter jets are appropriately called the Thunderbirds and they tour the world together performing at air shows. As I pondered what I had seen, I came to think of them as evangelists for the religion of U.S. empire–astounding and invoking worshipful fear in those who see them in Turkey, Romania, Finland and Bulgario. If I, having grown up in the United States, find myself in awe of these planes, how much more so those from other countries? But evangelism is not just important outside the United States. The planes also tour all the U.S. states and Puerto Rico.

Of course military displays are not unique to the United States. I imagine stadium performances in North Korea, in which huge masses of people move in unison and create massive tableaus, play a similar role of instilling religious awe in their audience.

This is where faith comes in for me. I believe that in the Bible and in the dissenting Christian tradition we find the seed that subverts the imperial faith based on displays of awesome power. For me, Anabaptism is about exploring Jesus’ subversive challenge to the evangelism of Thunderbirds.

Comments (4)

  1. Darvin Yoder

    Thanks, Tim for your thoughtful and articulate statement of Faith. I enjoy your articles. I am not young (65 years old), I am an Anabaptist, and strangely I’m discovering myself to be a Radical! Continue to help me and others on our way.

  2. Ben_jammin

    Thanks for your reflection.

    PS: My webbrowser is also called thunderbird, yet does not manage to instill awe in me, most of the time..

  3. Peter Ediger

    Thanks for this, Tim. I’m pondering how we can bring more of the “awe” into our evangelism of the nonviolence gospel.

  4. TimN (Post author)

    Vintage ad to illustrated this blog post: Freedom has a new sound

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