As an evangelical Christian and Wheaton College alumna (2009), who has spent years living among Muslims in Morocco and has worked with Iraqi refugees in Illinois, I find that the controversy surrounding Larycia Hawkins appeals to some of my deepest theological, intellectual and emotional commitments.
The issue boils down to two of Hawkins’ actions:
- She committed to wear a headscarf for the season of advent as an expression of compassion and solidarity with Muslims in America. – Good for her!
- She justified her actions on Facebook, saying “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book…” – Here is where she went terribly wrong.
One of my passions is encouraging evangelical expressions of empathy, compassion and solidarity with Muslims. In 2007, I took a year off from Wheaton College and moved to Morocco for the first time. I was 20 years old and knew nothing of the “real world” outside of the evangelical bubbles of my Christian high school and college. My purpose was to learn Arabic and expose myself to “other” people – another race, another religion, another way of life. Later I went back to Morocco as a Fulbright scholar and took a more intentional approach to understanding the religion and culture of my host country.
During my years in Morocco, a Muslim family took me in and made me their own. They called me daughter, sister and auntie. They stuck their necks out for me, defended me to neighbors who didn’t approve of the Christian they had taken in, and generously took me into their home for months at a time. While I lived in Morocco it was the Muslims that I knew (certainly not the evangelical Christians) who showed me the most incredible, humbling grace and kindness.
As an expression of solidarity with my Muslim “family,” I fasted alongside them during Ramadan several years. I was able to share their hunger and thirst, and commiserate with them about the almost unbearable sense of grumpiness before we finally broke the fast and once again could unite in joy and laughter. My gesture of solidarity meant a lot to them for reasons I don’t quite understand. I suppose they felt respected and validated. It also taught me a lot.
However, despite my commitment to show compassion and solidarity with some of my closest friends, I would never say, as Dr. Hawkins did, that my empathy is because of some sense of theological similarity. Doing so would both defile my own theological integrity and cheapen the sincere and profound love I feel for them despite the incompatibility of our theologies. Furthermore, it would put improper limits on my call to Christian compassion and kindness.
First, to say that Muslims are “like me” because we are all “people of the book” is just false. While it may be the easy “get out of awkward conversation free” card, it defies my theological convictions as an evangelical Christian. I believe in a trinitarian God, and I cannot deny the deity of Christ, or that he was begotten of the Father. These beliefs, though, are blasphemy to my Muslim friends and family. I can choose to downplay these differences, or I can express them with gentleness and respect. When I affirm my trinitarian God, my dear Muslim friends see clearly that my God is not the same as theirs. At least one of us is in ignorance. We can’t both be right. By acknowledging this, we can begin a real conversation about what we believe. We speak with sincerity and respect. This is how true, deep, loving inter-religious relationships function: with mutual understanding without capitulation. Unless, of course, through brilliant reasoning one succeeds in convincing the other.
Secondly, Hawkins’ justification of her compassionate solidarity on the grounds of theological compatibility is completely unnecessary. Christians are called to show compassion to the Muslim – not because of our shared theology, but because of our shared humanity. Because Muslims, as well as Christians, bear the image of God, we must treat them with dignity. Hawkins’ statement that she stands with Muslims because they are “like me” in their religion is insufficient. I would ask Dr. Hawkins if the same compassion would be incumbent upon us toward people who are not of the Abrahamic tradition. Of course it is. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That includes the Muslim, the polytheist and the atheist. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Who is my neighbor? Humanity.
Wheaton’s statement cites the following as a reasons for Hawkins’ suspension:
“Wheaton College faculty and staff make a commitment to accept and model our institution’s faith foundations with integrity, compassion and theological clarity.”
Hawkins’ unspoken message in donning the headscarf expresses solidarity with Muslims in America at a time when they need such compassionate encouragement and neighborliness. I applaud Hawkins for this. The statements she made to explain and justify this expression, however, are deeply problematic and do raise questions regarding her theological clarity, if not her theological integrity.