Suspended Wheaton College Professor Addresses Religious Statements

Wheaton College's decision to place a tenured professor on paid leave after she declared she was wearing a Muslim headscarf for Advent to express her solidarity with Muslims facing hostility and rising Islamophobia has created national and international headlines.

The college, a private evangelical Christian school in suburban Chicago, says it suspended associate professor Larycia Hawkins not for wearing the hijab or expressing solidarity with Muslims, but for a Facebook post Hawkins wrote that says Muslims and Christians worship the “same God.” (Read the full statement.)

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"Contrary to some media reports, social media activity and subsequent public perception, Dr. Hawkins’ administrative leave resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions, and is in no way related to her race, gender or commitment to wear a hijab during Advent."

The college also notes that Hawkins’ statements conflict with the school's Statement of Faith that all faculty must sign and commit to.

"As a Christian liberal arts institution, Wheaton College embodies a distinctive Protestant evangelical identity, represented in our Statement of Faith, which guides the leadership, faculty and students of Wheaton at the core of our institution’s identity. Upon entering into a contractual employment agreement, each of our faculty and staff members voluntarily commits to accept and model the Statement of Faith with integrity, compassion and theological clarity."

"Chicago Tonight" spoke with Hawkins on Monday afternoon by phone. Below, some highlights from the discussion.

What has the college said you did wrong to justify such a suspension?

"Everything that the college said is in their statement. They allege a lack of theological clarity in my Facebook post. The college has been clear that it is not because I wore the hijab alone that I had been suspended, but because of comments I made in my Facebook post.

"My Facebook post calling for embodied solidarity is not a theological statement. My statement itself was really about human solidarity first and foremost. Religious solidarity also—because I happen to be a Christian—is an important part of my identity, but really human solidarity based upon the notion of human dignity and what Christians call the image of God is squarely what this is about. It’s not making moral equivalencies between different religions. This is really an attempt to promote understanding.

"I certainly wasn’t wanting to escalate any kind of conflict between the college and myself and I have a commitment to reconciliation and the restoration of my position. But I think it’s important for me to be able to take back the attention from what has become a theological dispute and detracting attention from how we should be using our bodies and positioning them between oppressor and oppressed and standing in solidarity with others."

I read that you got the idea for wearing the hijab from one of your students. Is that correct?

"Sure. A student came to me and consulted with me about an idea she had for college students across the country—not just Wheaton College—to move toward wearing the hijab home on airplanes as a show of solidarity toward Muslims. She had read an article about this occurring in Australia and she showed it to me and I said, 'That’s a great idea.’ Then I consulted with the Council on American Islamic Relations to make sure this wouldn’t be seen as disrespectful.

"When I talked to my students, I said that I, as a faculty member, would like to model that idea by wearing the hijab to class. Part of this is about anti-discrimination for sure—if everyone wears the hijab then nobody can discriminate. That certainly was what the airport campaign was about. But as I was thinking about this and praying, and relating this to Advent in the Christian calendar, I thought for me, 'I would like to go beyond wearing the hijab just for one day, I would like to wear it all during Advent at a minimum in order to show solidarity.' And that’s what I decided to do. I then invited other people to join me, and that was the Facebook post of Dec. 10."

You’re the first African-American woman to have tenure at the school, do you think race has played any role in this in the way you’ve been treated here?

"I think there are specific ways in which race is always operative in the United States for everyone—race is operative for how white men are treated. So, the answer has to be an unequivocal yes—race is always operative. Whether or not race was directly involved in why I was suspended or in how my comments have been interpreted, I cannot say. I can only say that as a scholar of race, religion and politics, I know that race is always operative in the United States. Race, ethnicity and many other categories. The fact of the matter is while those are subjects that I study, I also live them as a black woman. So whether and how race played a role in my suspension is not for me to say, it’s something that as I say is always operative. I hope the college has not acted on those motives."

As a tenured professor, do you think there is any danger of you losing your job over this?

"The reason I wanted to work at Wheaton was because of the vision of not just teaching students, but also investing in student’s lives and mentoring students both in their faith, but also in their academic pursuits. Those things I still believe in and I still believe in the project of Christian liberal arts—nothing about that has changed. And as far as I know, there’s no news from the college with regard to my suspension—that still stands and has not been lifted. What that means about the future is not clear to me because at this time there has been no indication to me beyond the six months, spring semester period."

Below, Hawkins' Facebook post about Christians and Muslims.

I don't love my Muslim neighbor because s/he is American.I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by...

Posted by Larycia Alaine Hawkins on Thursday, December 10, 2015

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