Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Why Wheaton College Is Really Going After Dr. Larycia Hawkins: The Full Story Begins to Emerge

Several days ago, I took note of Wheaton College's firing of its controversial tenured theology professor, Dr. Larycia Hawkins. Many of you will know that Dr. Hawkins teaches political science at Wheaton, the "Harvard of evangelicalism," and ran afoul of the college's administrators when she chose to wear a hijab (as an evangelical Christian) to protest the targeting of all Islamic Americans as terrorists. The ostensible reason Wheaton has given for moving against her is that this gesture and statements she made about it contravene the college's statement of faith by implying that the God worshipped by evangelical Christians is the same God worshipped as Allah by Muslims.

NPR reporter Michel Martin has just done an interview with Dr. Hawkins, which summarizes her story. That interview is here. For context, it's important to note that Dr. Hawkins is Wheaton's first tenured African-American female professor — and that it's a very serious step for any institution of higher learning to try to fired a tenured professor.

As more information about what's going on at Wheaton is coming out now, I find the following aspect of the story interesting: Tobin Grant (who's a Wheaton alum) reports at Religion News Service, 

According to public reports, Hawkins has been investigated three times prior to last month’s events. She was questioned after writing an academic paper that drew from black liberation theology, after being tagged in a Facebook picture from a party the same day as Chicago’s Pride Parade, and after making suggestions on the college’s curriculum related to diversity and sexuality. 
In each case, the college made its investigation, found that Hawkins affirmed the Statement of Faith, and welcomed her to continue teaching without interruption or change in status. In other words, she did nothing wrong.

The link to which Grant's report points leads to a report by Manya Brachear Pashman of Chicago Tribune. Pashman states, 

Hawkins has been asked to affirm the college's statement of faith four times since she started teaching at Wheaton nearly nine years ago. She was first admonished for writing an academic paper about what Christians could learn from black liberation theology, which relates the Bible with the often-troubled history of race relations in America. Jones said Hawkins' article seemed to endorse a kind of Marxism. 
She was called in a year later to defend a photograph someone posted on Facebook showing her at a party inside a home on Halsted Street the same day as Chicago's Pride Parade. Last spring she was asked to affirm the statement again after suggesting that diversifying the college curriculum should include diplomatic vocabulary for conversations around sexuality.

And so, as Mariam Williams rightly concludes in an essay at National Catholic Reporter yesterday, Wheaton's claim that it's going after Dr. Hawkins because of her statements about Islam and Christianity is more than a little specious: Wheaton has been going after Larycia Hawkins for some time now, because she's a forceful, outspoken African-American woman who cites liberation theology positively in her work, and wants to open up conversations about the treatment of sexual minorities in evangelical churches and institutions.

Williams writes, 

As I read about the incidents that have prompted Wheaton officials to press Hawkins to confirm her commitment to their theology, I think that her firing has less to do with whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God than it does with the college's identity in the midst of a changing and pluralistic society. From the limited amount of information available, I gather that Hawkins was open and ready to have challenging conversations about protestant Christianity, race and sexuality. It appears she was living out her faith by demonstrating solidarity with several groups of oppressed people, something an institution clinging to a rigid interpretation of the gospel would have trouble handling.

As Fred Clark underscores, these reports suggest that Wheaton is treating Larycia Hawkins — as a black female — very differently than they would have treated a (straight) white male tenured professor taking the stands she has taken. She has clearly been singled out by the top administrators at Wheaton, and has been the subject of one investigation after another, with the college's statement of faith used repeatedly as a weapon to try to bludgeon and silence her. Fred's no-holds-barred summary of what's really going on at the Harvard of evangelicalism: 

Dr. Larycia Hawkins, Dave Gushee, and J.R. Daniel Kirk all have a hard time believing Wheaton College's weird theological pretext for firing a tenured professor. That's probably because Wheaton College administrators are lying their lily-white behinds off in claiming that this nakedly political, racist power-play has anything at all to do with Christianity.*

Fred is citing a public statement Dr. Hawkins released on 6 January, David Gushee at Religion News Service, and J.R. Daniel Kirk at his blog. Here's David Gushee's enlightening analysis:

I have a theory about why this is happening, about how a fine college stumbled into turning what could have been a local personnel problem into a national, even international, spectacle. This theory is based on many years of being a part of the evangelical higher education world, including many visits as a speaker at Wheaton College. 
It's about fear. 
It's about the world of conservative white American evangelicals, who feel embattled in America today. Increasingly, they are hunkering down in a reactionary posture. It's visible in the difference between the public persona of Billy Graham and his son Franklin Graham, who now, sadly, speaks for him. It's visible in all the legal actions being taken by evangelical schools to protect themselves against government mandates.

It's about fear. It's about ravening, out-of-control fear of a loss of control, especially by heterosexual white males, of people of color, LGBT people, a whole group of "Others" who had been successfully managed for many years until, well, things began to change radically in the final decades of the twentieth century.

And now religious groups and the institutions they run which have placed such overweening emphasis on control of troublesome others — and which have developed "faith-based" tools to assure such control (evangelicals, see: Statements of Faith; Catholics, see: Mandatum) — are scared to death that their control is waning. And at the Harvard of evangelicalism, that out-of-control fear (which is quite specifically out-of-control fear on the part of heterosexual white males) is zeroing in on an outspoken African-American female who is raising problematic questions about liberation theology and abuse of LGBT people in evangelical institutions . . . . 

Who happens to have tenure, making this move on the part of Wheaton very dangerous for the college and its academic reputation . . . . Which may well be part of why Larycia Hawkins has very adroitly chosen to make this intra-collegial debate as public as possible . . . .

Since their beating up of this tenured African-American female professor is now no longer known only to people inside Wheaton or evangelical circles, but to the public at large.

*This text doesn't occur in the portion of this posting you'll find when you click the link; it's on the main page of Fred Clark's Slacktivist blog, as an introduction to this posting. 

The photo of Larycia Hawkins is from her Twitter page.

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