Larycia Hawkins, my New Hero
I’m returning to this blogesque space for several reasons. First, the person of Dr. Larycia Hawkins and her courageous actions over the last eight weeks. Second, the coincidental fact that this month is Black History Month. Third, a chance to bridge race (which somehow has become the substance of this space) and religion (which was its intended subject).
To get the full story of Dr. Hawkins’ last two months, you are best served by going to her very informative site: http://drlaryciahawkins.org/. Here’s a recap for you, though. Dr. Hawkins, as part of her Advent practices, wore a hijab to church, posted a photo of herself in hijab to her Facebook page (there’s the photo for you), and added this comment,
“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book, and as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
Within days, she received a critical letter from Wheaton’s Provost demanding a theological explanation. She produced this, but the Provost found it insufficient and demanded an expanded theological statement within two days. Amazingly, she produced a remarkably nuanced, Christ-centered, inclusive, and entirely convincing theological defense of her actions and words within those 48 hours. (If you care about theology, go read the statement; it’s great.) Nevertheless, the Provost demanded still further explanations. We should already be loving her as a Christian and a theologian. Now she did something which makes me love her as a fellow teacher: she refused.
Correctly seeing that the Provost was demanding further statements in the hope that, despite her articulateness, she would eventually misstep (as we all do, sooner or later), and also correctly seeing that these demands were in any case unwarranted and unfair, she declined to continue the false dialogue. She simply reaffirmed her faith, her actions, her conviction of doing right, and her commitment to Wheaton College. Good call because basically the whole world—aside from whomever was pressuring the Provost and President to single her out for discriminatory academic punishment—was on her side.
The didn’t stop the prosecution though, Wheaton began her termination proceedings. Luckily, this is academia and the wheels of its (in)justice turn slowly. During these last six weeks, some kind of rapprochement must have been reached and some kind of sense must have returned to the Wheaton administration, because this weekend in a joint statement Dr. Hawkins and Wheaton announced they had “found a mutual place of resolution and reconciliation.” Sadly, that place does not include her remaining at Wheaton. I say “sadly,” because throughout this exceptionally ugly process, she never to my knowledge made a single statement professing anger or even resentment at Wheaton’s conduct. In fact, she went out of her way to reiterate her continued respect for the institution. (She is plainly much nicer than I am!) I think she really wanted to stay and I’m sorry she couldn’t.
A joint press announcement is forthcoming, but the parties agree that no questions will be entertained. They’ve clearly done the hard work of salvaging some dignity for Wheaton, and I can well imagine that that represents the limits of what Dr. Hawkins can stomach with respect to her ex-employer.
So, why is this worth writing and thinking about? I see at least three reasons:
- Because a tenured professor was stripped of her tenure and set up to be fired simply because she wrote something—on her own Facebook page, for goodness’ sake—that offended somebody. As Dr. Hawkins herself said of teachers, “If they’re not safe on their Facebook page, they’re not safe in the classroom. And that’s the end of liberal arts….That’s the end of the academy.”That should scare you.
- Because Dr. Hawkins’ words evidently mark the extreme limit of what is acceptable to say about the Abrahamic religions ( Judaism, Christianity, and Islam): that “we worship the same God.” Yes, you can say this, but apparently you have to be willing to lose your job because of it. Because that is what happened.That should scare you.
- Because the facts I’ve related just don’t feel like the full story, do they? Let me try another version in just one sentence: the first African-American female professor at Wheaton College steps out of line, rich donors who never liked her in the first place lean on the Provost, and he complies when they demand he fire her.That should scare you.
Dr. Hawkins became a target trifecta: a female person of color speaking out for the humanity of Muslims. Without an exceptional combination of intelligence, compassion, principle, and courage, she was toast. Luckily for anyone who cares about religious respect or academic freedom in America, she has that combination. Wheaton was not up to her level. Now she’ll move elsewhere. If I ran a college I’d be calling her up, right now. Plenty of time before September for her to tweak some courses for the new appointment—with tenure, of course—that I’d be proud to offer her.
Now let’s see if I can get myself in trouble.
I’m a Buddhist and Buddhist scholar, but I first began studying the Abrahamic religions in graduate school thirty years ago. While perspectives on God vary (read Dr. Hawkins’ document where she lays this out), there is simply no way we can see the Abrahamic religions, which all trace their origins to the encounter between Abraham and God, as worshipping different Gods. Did Abraham encounter many Gods? No, he encountered one. Well then, face the music: there is one God, the same God, for these three traditions. Squirm all you want but you have to deal with it. As the Jews pray, “Sh’ma, Yisrael! Adonai Eluheinu, Adonai Echad.” “Hear, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
Okay CSULA, you can try to fire me now! (Nah, I’m not cool enough, but I’d sure be in good company.)
Update 2/9/16: Just learned today about the firings going on at Mount Saint Mary’s in Maryland. Ugly, very ugly. Tough time for teachers.