Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What Is Going On At Wheaton College?

Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian college in Wheaton, Illinois, recently decided to wear a hijab during the Advent season to show her solidarity with her Muslim neighbors.  

Here is what Hawkins wrote on her Facebook page about her decision to wear the hijab:

I don't love my Muslim neighbor because s/he is American.
I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity.
I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind--a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014.
I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.
But as I tell my students, theoretical solidarity is not solidarity at all. Thus, beginning tonight, my solidarity has become embodied solidarity.
As part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College, to play in Chi-town, in the airport and on the airplane to my home state that initiated one of the first anti-Sharia laws (read: unconstitutional and Islamophobic), and at church.
I invite all women into the narrative that is embodied, hijab-wearing solidarity with our Muslim sisters--for whatever reason. A large scale movement of Women in Solidarity with Hijabs is my Christmas ‪#‎wish‬ this year.
Perhaps you are a Muslim who does not wear the veil normally. Perhaps you are an atheist or agnostic who finds religion silly or inexplicable. Perhaps you are a Catholic or Protestant Christian like me. Perhaps you already cover your head as part of your religious worship, but not a hijab.

***I would like to add that I have sought the advice and blessing of one of the preeminent Muslim organizations in the United States, the Council on American Islamic Relations, ‪#‎CAIR‬, where I have a friend and Board colleague on staff. I asked whether a non-Muslim wearing the hijab was haram (forbidden), patronizing, or otherwise offensive to Muslims. I was assured by my friends at CAIR-Chicago that they welcomed the gesture. So please do not fear joining this embodied narrative of actual as opposed to theoretical unity; human solidarity as opposed to mere nationalistic, sentimentality.

Also see an interview with Hawkins at The Christian Post

Here is the Wheaton statement in response:

December 15, 2015:

In response to significant questions regarding the theological implications of statements that Associate Professor of Political Science Dr. Larycia Hawkins has made about the relationship of Christianity to Islam, Wheaton College has placed her on administrative leave, pending the full review to which she is entitled as a tenured faculty member.
Wheaton College faculty and staff make a commitment to accept and model our institution's faith foundations with integrity, compassion and theological clarity. As they participate in various causes, it is essential that faculty and staff engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the College's evangelical Statement of Faith.
The statement does not say anything specific about why Wheaton placed Hawkins on leave. Christianity Today suggests that she was placed on leave for saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. 
I am not a theologian or an expert on Islam and do not feel qualified to discuss the issues related to the common history shared by these two Abrahamic religious traditions.  But after listening to Hawkins speak in a video posted by The Chicago Tribune it seems to me that her "project" is a direct expression of her Christian faith.  Think about it--how many political science professors in the United States engage in what Hawkins calls "Advent worship?" Better yet, how many evangelical Christians--the kind of folks who could sign Wheaton's statement of faith--participate in "Advent worship?"  On this front, Hawkins appears to be a model faculty member.

To what extent should an evangelical college carve out space for the celebration of the universal values that apply to all human beings (as created in the image of God)?  And how should such space exist alongside, or in conjunction with, the more particular or specific doctrinal beliefs that define evangelical Christian faith and the identity of an evangelical college?  These questions seem to go to the heart of the matter.

I think that the particular doctrines and faith commitments of evangelical Christianity (however they are defined by the institution) should always be paramount at an evangelical Christian college, These commitments should inform the life of the institution in every way--from student life to faculty hiring.  But I also think that the kind of expressions of human solidarity that Hawkins is exemplifying in this situation--expressions rooted in Christian theology (the Imago Dei)--are also appropriate at times.  

Though Hawkins doesn't specifically frame it this way, her project also represents a commitment to religious liberty at a time when this value is under attack from some outspoken GOP presidential candidates.  Her response is certainly different, and I would say more Christian, than the way the president of Liberty University recently handled this issue.

So why did Hawkins's act of "Advent worship" blow up to the point that Wheaton placed her on administrative leave?  I don't know.  But I have a good guess.  I am guessing that some Wheaton alumni--many of whom are conservative politically and theologically--are very upset.  If some of my social media feeds are any indication, this is definitely the case.