United in Transgression: Christ-following Reflections on an Airline Spectacle

There’s a good chance that the flight attendant on your next United Airlines flight might squawk something like, “In case of an emergency, your seat cushion may be used as a YouTube filming platform.” By now, we’ve all seen the bizarre footage of a bloodied doctor being pried out of his seat and dragged down the aisle of the plane. He had obstinately refused to yield to the airline when they exercised their fine-print right to evict him from his seat, in order to transport a four-person flight crew to Louisville from Chicago.

How can we guide our students to view this air travel spectacle through Biblical spectacles? We see Gospel informed truths all over the puddle jumper at the terminal that day. There are deep abiding truths underneath the social media ‘likes’ and the news commentary on the plight of the air traveler in a post-9/11 world.

Here are three principles gleaned from the Word of God that we can apply to this peculiar series of events that unfolded last week. After the initial sympathy we feel for a passenger being ejected from a seat he justly purchased, we as Christians can begin to see the sadder scene of the human condition played out through rebellion, pride, and inaction.

Truth # 1 – We humans really don’t like to submit to authority.
United ticket agents and flight attendants apparently exercised their authority in randomly selecting four passengers for removal from United Flight 3411. After watching the shocking video of officers “re-accommodating” Dr. David Dao down the aisle, we forget that the other three passengers selected to leave the plane complied.

I’m sure they didn’t want to de-board either (otherwise they would have volunteered when given the chance), but they submitted. They grabbed their carry-on items and left the plane, as asked by the airline officials. United Airlines, in this case, was the authority to which they were subject while traveling on their aircraft.

We as humans, and especially as Americans, love our freedom. We are also rebellious. We dislike someone telling us what to do. No matter our age, we don’t like submitting to authority. If in doubt, hop in a car and take a drive. You’ll witness plenty of people behind the wheel who neglect to submit to the authority of the law mandating speed limits. When compelled by the authorities over us (in this case, the United Airlines employees and Chicago Police), obeying them is obeying Jesus and therefore showing Jesus to those around us. We trust the words of God from 1 Peter 2:13-16,

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”

Truth # 2 – God is Creative and has equipped all of his created people with powers and abilities to think creatively.
One of the many things I don’t like about big government bureaucracies or large corporations is that employees can become rigid in thinking and legalistic in practice. Where was the inventive and resourceful supervisor in this drama that unfolded on the plane? Could the blood of a doctor have been spared, and the embarrassment of a brand been saved, by one creative thinking decision-maker coming up with a better solution to the challenge? “How to transfer four United crewmembers to a city that is only a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Chicago?”

Companies like Southwest Airlines and Chick-fil-a have succeeded in highly competitive markets by serving customers and thinking outside the box. Did the supervisor at that gate in Chicago feel empowered to solve the problem? Did the United gate agent feel he had the freedom to suggest an alternative way to achieve the necessary solution? Could they have offered more money for a volunteer? Could they have directly asked another passenger to volunteer once Dr. Dao became belligerent? Could United have booked another flight on another airline to get their team to Louisville? Could they have booked a cab or an Uber to drive the crew? Could the police officers have been more creative in how they resolved the non-compliance of Dr. Dao?

Sometimes the glass truly is half empty, but for someone willing to look there is often a carafe of water close at hand to refill the glass. Our creative God found the ultimate solution for our direst problem. There was a confounded chasm of sin between God and us with seemingly no way to reconcile us to Him. Jesus came and made a way. God is inventive and resourceful and we bear His image. That means that we have ideas within our grasp.

The events that unfolded on that plane were likely not just a failure to innovate a creative solution, however, but also an ugly clasping of power. I have a feeling that all parties involved stood on principle, digging in to their pride. I can just hear the United agent claiming, “It’s our policy!” and the doctor retorting, “It’s my right, and I have an important job of treating patients tomorrow!” Both parties considered themselves more important and more right than the other.

Truth # 3 – The response of the Christ-following spectator would be to take his place.
Aren’t we called to radically “love our neighbor as ourselves?” It would be almost unimaginable, in our society today, for someone on that plane to have stood up and volunteered to take Dr. Dao’s place. The follower of Christ also follows him in his sacrificial living and substitutionary love.

In Ephesians, we are exhorted to “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Would this have happened in 1987? Have we drifted away from a society that respects authority? Have we lost our way in our obsession of “rights?” Has consumerism polluted our call to radical obedience to Jesus – obedience that is counter-cultural, creative, and submissive? No matter the answer to these questions, we all share one thing that unites us to the very core. We are united in our transgression and in our need of the salvation that only comes from the love and sacrifice of God the Father, through Jesus Christ.


Zach is the founder of Bigtime Ministries in Birmingham, AL. He earned his B.S. at Vanderbilt University and studied at Beeson Divinity School. He has served on staff at several churches in youth ministry in TN, VA, and AL. He is currently an event and retreat speaker, living in Nashville, TN.

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