How “White Christianity” Beat Academic Freedom at Wheaton

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As a fellow—make that sister—tenured black woman, I feel a particular kinship with Dr. Larycia Hawkins.

When I read that a tenured professor was suspended for expressing a theological view some in her conservative evangelical college community found to be incompatible with their views, their covenant, I was deeply concerned for my sister scholar whom I’ve never met.

For I know how it feels to use my voice as a black woman to speak theologically and interpret the scripture and then have white Christians tell me that my contextualized hermeneutics and exegesis are heterodox while theirs—and only theirs—is orthodox.

But this isn’t about me.

This is also not an isolated incident, disconnected from race. It is very much about race and its construction, the racialized blackness and brownness of Muslim peoples and their positioning by much of Christian America as the ultimate, polarized Other. That Othering reinforced by violent rhetoric, threats of violence and enacted physical and economic violence is familiar to black folk. That includes the religious discourse that positions “white Christianity” as the sole truth and black folk, Christian or not—but especially when not—as its antithesis. (By “white Christianity,” I mean Christianity based on and expressed in white cultural norms that can be sometimes internalized and performed by black bodies.)

This story is also about the race of Dr. Hawkins, a minoritized woman choosing to explicitly identify herself with another marginalized group by wearing a hijab as a political and spiritual practice. She did this during the sacred season of Advent no less, when much of the Christian world longs for the return of Christ who was both an immigrant and refugee. Dr. Hawkins articulated her solidarity in theological terms, an understanding of the one God who is the God of Muslims and Christians (and Jews). It was that articulation—not the hijab-as-solidarity—that provoked censure.RDinboxThe use of tenure as an instrument of chastisement for theological autonomy lays bare the lack of integrity in a tenure process that says one’s tenure is valid only as long as one articulates theological group-think. When an institution grants a faculty member tenure, it makes a commitment to support a faculty colleague—even when other community members or stake-holders disagree with what their colleague says, writes, teaches or publishes.

However, it seems that membership in the Wheaton College community as a political science professor means to some that Dr. Hawkins isn’t permitted to express a theological understanding with any variance from the community norms. The rebuke and suspension of Dr. Hawkins shines a light on the experience of minoritized Christians in predominately white, Christian spaces.

All too often we are held to interpretations of Christianity purported to be universal, neutral and above all, correct, that emerge from the white culture of those who produced them and are willfully blind to the whiteness that permeates their Christian constructs.

Dr. Hawkins took a stand in solidarity with people who are being demonized, often in Jesus’ name. And in so doing she proclaimed a singular God. A God who, in fact and practice, is called Allah by Christians and Muslims alike, highlighting what unites rather than what divides.