“Same God” – Embodied Solidarity Comes at a Price
Back in 2016, I wrote two posts about Professor Larycia Hawkins, who was removed from her tenured position at Wheaton College because of her “embodied solidarity” with Muslims.
Wheaton College: an Intra-faith Controversy
The Professor Wore a Hijab in Solidarity – Then Lost Her Job:
An INTRAfaith Case Study
Then in 2018, I learned that there was a documentary about this intriguing story. So, of course, I wrote about that: Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God: More from Wheaton College
Now, it’s here! “Same God” is being shown this month on some PBS stations. Watch the trailer and find local listings here. There will also be a limited theatrical release beginning March 8. The best way to get information is to follow @samegodfilm on FB, Twitter, and Instagram.
“Same God” was directed by Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Linda Midgett, who is herself a graduate of Wheaton. But make no mistake about it; this is not a defense of the institution. Nor is it a condemnation. It is a beautifully filmed, honest telling, not only of Dr. Hawkins’ story, but also of the history and current state and challenges of evangelical Christianity.
A Quick Recap
It really all started in 2013, when Dr. Hawkins (or Doc Hawk as students call her in the film) became the first female African-American tenured professor at Wheaton. At Wheaton, an explicitly Christian liberal arts college, all faculty members are required to annually sign a covenant which defines what it means to be “dedicated to the service of Christ and His Kingdom.” As the film tells us, Dr. Hawkins willingly and faithfully signed this covenant upon her employment and every year thereafter.
Then, on December 2, 2015, 14 people were killed in a terror attack in San Bernardino. Immediately, anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US began to ramp up. Then-candidate Donald Trump called for a Muslim travel ban. In response to this, Dr. Hawkins posted on her Facebook page that she was standing in solidarity with Muslims because they are also “people of the book” who worship “the same God.” As part of her Advent devotions, she posted a picture of herself wearing a hijab. That’s when it hit the fan. Long story short: she lost her job. The film covers all this very well, with interviews of Hawkins, plus faculty members and students. No one from the administration agreed to be interviewed.
A Rorschach Test
There is so much in this film that could and should spark dialogue. Someone said that the picture of Dr. Hawkins wearing a hijab was like a Rorschach test; different people would see different things. For example, many Muslim women would see an act of compassionate solidarity (what Hawkins would call embodied solidarity). For others, it would surface questions about academic freedom, religious liberty, and theology. I would add that having seen the film, the picture is a stark symbol of the systems of patriarchy and white privilege at work. It’s also a reminder of the need for interfaith dialogue. The ignorance expressed in many of the reactions to Dr. Hawkins’ post is simply appalling.
What I see in the inkblot is an intrafaith conversation needing to happen.
To be sure, there are many facets to this story: blatant racism and sexism; the emotional toll of the entire saga on Dr. Hawkins; and not to be ignored, the career and financial hits she was forced to take. All of these are very worthy of our attention. But what caught my intrafaith eye was the hurt she experienced in being accused of not being Christian. In a review in the Chicago Tribune, Linda Midgett expressed hope that her documentary will spark dialogue between people of different faiths so they can find common ground. I wholeheartedly agree! But I also hope it will encourage dialogue between people within the same faith – in this case Christianity.
It Really Is about Theology . . .
In the film, Dr. Hawkins says that the controversy in which she was embroiled was not about a theological debate. In the context of her grilling by the Wheaton provost, I agree and applaud her courage in naming what was unfair in the process and her refusal to engage in further “theological conversation.”
Having said that, it is clear that theological questions loom large over the whole saga. Dr. George Kalantziz, Professor of Theology, hits the nail on the head: “When we ask the question ‘does Islam (or any other religion than Christianity) worship the same God?’ it’s always a qualified ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ We don’t all understand the word, not only ‘God,’ the same way, but worship the same way.”
Bingo! Wheaton missed an opportunity to explore these questions.
And Even More So, Christology . . .
I’m particularly interested in the Christological questions raised by the firestorm of responses to Dr. Hawkins’ assertion that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In the film, as Dr. Kalantziz is speaking, the camera pans across a beautiful church sanctuary. In the foreground is a gold processional cross. The symbolism is unmistakeable: this is a place that worships Jesus the Christ. Although never explicitly stated in the film, this is the heart of the matter. Who was/is Jesus? How does belief in Christ as the second person of the Trinity inform our beliefs about the truth of other religions?
The interview with Bishop David Zac Niringiye would be the perfect discussion starter on how our interfaith encounters inform/strengthen/challenge/change our own beliefs. Speaking eloquently of the need for Christians to listen to our Muslim siblings, he says, “There is something about what they know of God that might cause me to understand God more.” He goes on to qualify: “Now, it is true, that the revelation of God is finally in Jesus Christ. It is complete.”
There is where I’d want the conversation to begin.
“Your Christianity Isn’t Real”
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of Dr. Hawkins’ story is the fact that her identity as a Christian was called into question. I can relate to a point. My job was never on the line. But I know that my adherence to orthodoxy has been questioned. In my case, it’s because I’ve moved further into Progressive Christianity, which has major differences with more traditional ways of believing. The ironic thing here, though, is that Hawkins is quite at home in evangelical Christianity. In the film, she movingly speaks about her baptism in her grandfather’s church, her love for Jesus and how that informs her work in the world. An interesting aspect of the film is its contrasting of African-American and white evangelicals. I was reminded that ‘evangelical’ does not describe a monolithic group; we on the more liberal side should not use the term irresponsibly.
I’m part of a denomination with ‘evangelical’ in its name: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We often have discussions about removing the ‘evangelical’ part because we don’t want to be identified with what has become white evangelicalism since the 1970s (this was a really helpful part of the documentary). Listening to Wheaton faculty members, it’s clear they’re having some of the same dilemmas. I believe we could easily find some common ground in an intrafaith dialogue.
Who Are We? Christian Identity in the 21st Century
Most religious groups are undergoing a time of questioning about their place in the world. This is causing great anxiety among many people and institutions. As Dr Kalantziz said, “Questions have moved. People, ideas have moved . . . expressions of theology have changed.” This is not good news to many who are resistant to change, especially in theology and religious practice. He talks about the evangelicalism of the past and the future, about two kinds of leadership: pioneers and overseers. The role of overseers is to keep the heritage of American evangelicalism alive.
Wheaton College, despite its pioneering history as a stop on the Underground Railroad, has become an overseer, dedicated to an evangelicalism of the past. Larycia Hawkins, on the other hand, can be seen as helping to usher in an evangelicalism of the future. That’s obviously not an easy place to be. The film poignantly allows us to enter into her life – in the courage, strength, conviction, and resilience, as well as the vulnerability, suffering, and loss. I don’t know how anyone could fail to be moved by her story.
My interest in Dr. Hawkins began as a rather academic exercise in showing an example of an intrafaith issue. Having seen the film, I’m even more of a fan – of the person and her witness of faith in action. It’s still an intrafaith story, but so much more. I hope it will be seen by Christians, from evangelicals to progressives. And I sincerely hope that director Linda Midgett’s vision of her documentary sparking dialogue will be fulfilled: both between people of different faiths and between people within the same faith.