Editor’s Note: David R. Wheeler is a freelance writer and a journalism professor at the University of Tampa. Follow him on Twitter: @David_R_Wheeler. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Wheaton College suspends professor for saying Christians and Muslims worship "the same God"
David Wheeler: There were other, more loving (and less extreme) actions the school could have taken
When you think of Christianity, you probably think of loving your neighbor, turning the other cheek, and going the extra mile. But do all Christians practice what they preach?
Consider the recent headlines coming out of two well-known evangelical colleges: Liberty University in Virginia and Wheaton College in Illinois. Incidents there illustrate a missed opportunity among evangelical leaders to show that they are following the words of Jesus.
In what would be considered a bizarre speech for a university president on most other campuses, Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. encouraged his own students to carry guns with them to discourage terrorists from attempting an attack. In part of his speech earlier this month, he suggested that packing concealed weapons would enable students to “end those Muslims” before they could kill anyone.
Commentators scrutinized his comments with a magnifying glass: When he said “those Muslims,” was he painting with broad brush strokes, portraying most Muslims as violent jihadists? Or did he simply mean “those bad guys”? As one commentator put it, Falwell “probably … did not mean to lump all Muslims into one group and condemn them all.”
Are these really the right questions to be asking at a time when tolerance seems to be decreasing?
Instead of debating the wisdom of bringing guns to campus to kill potential terrorists, what about listening to the actual words of Jesus, such as “love your enemy”? What about 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear”? For those who say there are no Christians who follow Jesus’ words unconditionally, what about the Amish people who forgave an attacker who killed their children in 2007?
As it happens, there are people who do exhibit those virtues. But they get punished.
Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor of political science at Wheaton College, first announced she would wear a head scarf during the Christmas season of Advent. She would wear the hijab, she said, to show religious solidarity with Muslims. Considering the fact that Christian scripture supports the wearing of head scarves during worship services, and the fact that Middle Eastern and Eastern Orthodox Christian women still wear them today, Hawkins’ act could hardly be seen as straying from Christianity.
But it was her next statement that got her in trouble with the school. To show solidarity with her Muslim neighbors, whose communities are coming under increasing persecution lately, she said that Christians and Muslims worship “the same God.”
Wheaton suspended her, citing the theological implications of her statement. After all, the college doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about the relationship between these two distinct religions.
So let me get this straight. The president of one evangelical college calls on students to arm themselves in case they need to kill certain Muslims. He gets an outpouring of gratitude. “I’ve never received more support,” he told the media.
A professor at another evangelical college – Billy Graham’s alma mater, no less – gets suspended for trying to show sympathy toward her Muslim neighbors. She didn’t say Islam and Christianity were the same religion (they’re not). She didn’t say Muslims believe in the divinity of Christ (they don’t). All she said was that they worship the same God.
Wheaton is entitled to its beliefs. But there were other, more loving (and less extreme) actions the school could have taken. Instead of suspending Hawkins, the school could have simply made a public statement explaining why Hawkins’ comments conflict with Wheaton’s statement of faith.
Many theologians hold the view that the three Abrahamic faiths worship the same God. Why couldn’t Wheaton take this opportunity to explain to the public its unique view of evangelical Christianity? It’s in the education business, so why not educate people?
The reaction from Wheaton’s faculty and staff is noteworthy. While some constituents supported the administration, others launched a change.org petition supporting Hawkins, which had 3,100 supporters as of Sunday. Students have also held peaceful demonstrations supporting Hawkins.
And how did this go over in the Muslim community? It seems to have bridged a religious divide that no amount of lecturing or finger-waving could ever achieve. For example, a group of prominent black Muslim women, including the Muslim chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an open letter praising Hawkins: “We, the undersigned, write this letter to express our deep love, appreciation and gratitude for Dr. Hawkins’ courage and beautiful demonstration of ‘embodied solidarity.’”
At a time when we need to see more tolerance and understanding from evangelical leaders, we’re instead seeing fear. Christians can do better than that.