Wheaton College v. Prof. Larycia Hawkins – Why This Evangelical Feels Her Potential Firing is Wrong

Wheaton College v. Prof. Larycia Hawkins – Why This Evangelical Feels Her Potential Firing is Wrong January 6, 2016

Photo courtesy of CAIR-Chicago
Photo courtesy of CAIR-Chicago

By Susan Campbell

Score one for the letter of the law and immaturity of spirit.

On Tuesday, evangelical Wheaton College announced it had started a procedure that could result in the firing of Dr. Larycia Hawkins, who’d announced on Facebook late last year that she would wear a hijab during Advent to show solidarity with Muslims. She’d also said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

In a statement posted on the school’s website, administrators said they’d reached an “impasse” in their review of Hawkins’ faith and so would move forward to fire her.

Instead of applauding Dr. Hawkins’ act of love in a time when hate crimes are increasing against Muslim men and women, Wheaton placed Prof. Hawkins on paid administrative leave. Administrators said that Hawkins’ suggesting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God runs counter to the school’s nearly 100-year old Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose.

In a December statement, the college said that while “Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation and the life of prayer.”

For this, they’ve started procedure — a “Notice of Recommendation to Initiate Termination-for-Cause Proceedings regarding Dr. Hawkins” — and very well may choose to lose an associate professor of political science who appears to be popular with students, and who is the first African American tenured faculty member on campus.

About that impasse: In December, Dr. Hawkins responded to a request from administrators to explain her theology, but when the college asked for clarification, she declined.

Can you blame her? This is the fourth time the professor has been asked to reassure the college that her theology is in line with theirs. That’s four times in her nine-year tenure there – once, according to published reports, after she wrote a paper on black liberation theology, once when a Facebook photo showed her at a party in Chicago the same day Chicago Pride held their parade, and once after she suggested different language around sexuality in the college curriculum.

There is so much wrong with this, including the notion that a board can review and endorse another person’s faith.

Wheaton will proceed with a hearing before nine faculty members, then make a recommendation to the college president and provost, who will then go to the Board of Trustees. Board members will make a final decision. Sadly, Wheaton College has never known what to make of the concept of “People of the Book.” In 2007, 138 Muslim scholars and clerics wrote a historic open letter to Christian churches called “A Common Word Between Us and You.” The letter called for peace and understanding. Wheaton administrators signed the answering letter, which reaffirmed the importance of interfaith cooperation.

But then Wheaton officials removed their names from the letter after some of the country’s more conservative Christians – among them the political behemoth Focus on the Family – criticized their involvement.

Is that so surprising? Christendom – particularly my brand, evangelicalism – so often gets wrapped up in the letter of the law. We are hyper-sensitive to our lists of proper (and improper) behaviors, though our sacred text warns against that in II Cor. 3:6. We can argue theology until Jesus comes back, but it’s hard to miss the message of that verse to the church at Corinth: “For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.”

The Corinthian church was young, and its members were struggling with an unfamiliar theology. Young faith wants guidance, and rules. Mature faith assumes responsibility and discernment. From the school’s Statement of Faith, this is the inerrant word of God. One would think that such navel-gazing – Is Prof. Hawkins sufficiently faithful? – would be beside the point.

So many other challenges face Christians these days. And, if we are to serve (and there again, our sacred text is clear), we cannot afford to be distracted by what amounts to so much dogma.

Sadly, such distractions are a departure from Wheaton’s own roots, and not just its spiritual ones. The college was decidedly abolitionist – and may have even served as a stop on the Underground Railroad — when abolition was not a topic for polite company, including among evangelical churches whose members were content with quoting Biblical verses that appeared to endorse the awful institution of slavery.

But Wheaton may be right about one thing: It just may be that the college doesn’t not worship the same God as do the Muslims. Wheaton’s God looks far, far too small. I’m not sure Jesus would recognize that God.

Susan Campbell is distinguished lecturer at University of New Haven, and author of “Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl,” and “Tempest Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker.”

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