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Lessons from Wheaton College

The very public drama that unfolded at Wheaton College over the past few months revealed stark divisions within the evangelical community, and how they view the responsibility for living in Christ’s footsteps. Even more poignantly, it revealed some truths about more widespread societal divides that ripple far beyond Wheaton.

At the heart of the conflict was the first tenured, female African-American professor at a highly regarded evangelical Christian school, Professor Larycia Hawkins. Two months ago, she posted a statement on Facebook to stand in solidarity with Muslims after the San Bernardino slaughter.  In addition to wearing a hijab (the head covering that many Muslim women wear) during Advent, she described Christians and Muslims as worshiping “the same God.”

Almost immediately, she was placed on administrative leave from Wheaton, triggering a heated debate and the initiation of termination proceedings. The college community split, arguing whether Hawkins’ actions and words had violated the faith statement that she (and all faculty and students) sign as a condition of involvement with the school. That statement reflects the institution’s theological convictions, including belief in the holy trinity, and signature is a requirement of employment. Even today, Hawkins maintains that her personal Facebook post fit within the school’s statement of faith.

The Hawkins-Wheaton controversy raised multiple issues starting with a theological debate, but also including charges of Islamophobia, racism and gender bias. Then, last week, the widely debated dispute ended with a “mutual agreement” that the professor and the institution part ways. A joint decision had been made and whether it was right or wrong is now a question for the Wheaton community to unravel.

For those of us outside the Wheaton drama, however, there is a lot to learn. That is, if we pay attention to the lessons it can teach.

In particular, Wheaton reminds us that religious diversity is not limited to the different traditions that exist in the world. It is also within traditions – and reflected in those who share an affiliation and even attend the same house of worship – but who do not share identical beliefs. Wheaton reminds us of this truth, by dramatically proving that evangelical Christians are not a monolith, but rather, a complex and diverse group of people.

Ultimately, the school was unable to speak with one voice because, even in a small religious community, there is no such thing. Intuitively, we know this. But Wheaton proves that among evangelical Christians there are those who stand in solidarity with others in particular ways, and others who believe those types of solidarity nullify their faith. For the many Americans who view evangelicals through one lens, Wheaton reminds us that such stereotypes have no basis in reality. And that no one person can speak for an entire group. After all, though they parted amicably, Professor Hawkins and Wheaton’s President Ryken are both evangelical Christians. And they disagree on what it means to put the school’s foundational creed into practice.

Wheaton’s lessons don’t stop there. Another is that identity matters. Sixty years ago, the Wheaton contro-versy would predictably have centered on one question, whether Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” It would have been a purely theological inquiry, a debate for clergy and academics. Today this theological question remains important at Wheaton, but equally important (if not more so) is the role of identity. There, questions of Muslim identity and how evangelical Christians can properly stand in solidarity with them exploded, along with questions about racism and gender bias.

None of us can say with certainty whether Islamophobia played a part in Wheaton’s decision to sever ties with Professor Hawkins. We can, however, say with confidence that given our current climate, this question matters. Anti-Muslim rhetoric and suspicion of all Muslims pervades the media (even though there is great diversity with Islam, too). Professor Hawkins knew this, of course, when she posted her comment. Her aim was to show solidarity with Muslims during a time when many people stereotype the entire community, fail to acknowledge diversity within Islam, and instead, lay blame at the feet of an entire religion. As we consider Wheaton, therefore, it is legitimate to ask whether Islamophobia helped drive the admin-istration’s decisions.

Wheaton’s faculty diversity committee also opposed the move to fire Hawkins, claiming it was discriminatory based on her race and gender. Again, none of us really know the motivating factors, but these challenges need answers. After all, Professor Hawkins was the first tenured Black female professor. So we should ask, what would have happened if she had been a white male? Would she have been suspended so quickly? Would a termination proceeding have been considered? We have passed the point when this story could have been “just” about theology. It is inevitably about identity as well – just like so many other stories in the media.

A third lesson involves questions of Christian identity, and the experience of being an evangelical Christian in the U.S. today. Simply, the Wheaton controversy suggests the isolation that many Christians feel today. This may not sound right to those who think of the U.S. as a Christian majority nation, which it is. After all, the majority of Americans (about 71%, according to Pew) affiliate with some form of Christianity. And that has resulted in our society often following Christian norms such as closing most businesses on Christmas (an example of a phenomenon sometimes described as “default Christianity,” which privileges the practices of Christians over Americans of other faiths or no faith). But does all that mean that Christians do not face bias and discrimination in the U.S.? The answer is no.

In fact, in Tanenbaum’s Survey of American Workers and Religion, almost half of white evangelical Protestants surveyed had personally experienced or actually seen religious bias or non-accommodation affect a colleague at work. This is at the same rate as people in minority religious traditions within the U.S. Additionally, 40% of white evangelical Protestants report that they face “a lot” of discrimination in American society.

To those who are skeptical of these numbers (not of the data’s validity but of the sentiment behind it), I invite you to think differently and try to sit with the fact that many evangelical Protestants at the very least, have the experience of discrimination. This is real. Many Christians in America, and certainly many evangelicals, feel under attack.

Certainly, this sense of isolation, division and being victimized is not unique to evangelical Christians. What is important to understand, however, is that they are among those who can feel alienated in our society. And this is likely to persist, especially as the rates of affiliation continue to decline (while the numbers of Americans who affiliate with non-Christian traditions, or no tradition at all, rise, according to Pew).

In essence, the Hawkins-Wheaton story is a mirror. It calls on us to recognize the power of our multiple identities and of the diversity of our beliefs and practices – and how the challenge of the 21st century is to acknowledge and respect these differences. These are important lessons. And I’d like to think that as educators, Professor Hawkins and President Ryken would approve of us making this a teachable moment.

Joyce S. Dubensky
CEO

Proclaim Enough – Paris Reflections

Peace for Paris

Illustration by Jean Jullien

Dear Friends,

Today is a day filled with sorrow. As once again, our hearts are broken for the more than 120 innocents murdered across Paris. We ache for them, for their families and friends, and for their nation which is under siege.

Today is a day when we stand in solidarity with the French people from all walks of life and diverse beliefs. In one voice, we denounce the violent extremists – apparently ISIS followers – who claim “credit” for butchering people just going about their lives in restaurants, concerts and as they moved across their city.

We also mourn and draw attention to the over 40 Lebanese deliberately slaughtered only days ago – including Sh’ia Muslims, Christians and Druse – by two ISIS suicide bombers in Beirut.

We remember in profound sorrow the Israelis and Palestinians – Jews, Christians and Muslims – who are dying amid a rapidly escalating cycle of condemnation, division and violence in their homeland.

We recognize the Muslim and Christian Syrians who are desperately seeking to escape from the horrors that ISIS and others are inflicting on them in what was once a thriving nation.

And we must not allow ourselves to forget Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who we all mourned, when he washed onto a beach as his family sought to escape the constant terror that Syrians now face.

Today, with one voice, we must remember the horror of Paris and horrors across our globe. But we must do more. We must reaffirm our commitment to the core values in our many traditions and beliefs, and to our shared humanity.

There are many possible responses to today’s horror in Paris. Sadness fills us. But this is also a time to recommit to one another. To standing together amid our many differences, to honoring our neighbors and joining with them to stand against the aberrant extremism that threatens us all.

Let us stand together and, with strength, proclaim enough!

Joyce S. Dubensky
CEO

IRAQ: Be Aware, Stay Committed

Tens of thousands of Yazidis have fled ISIS and are stranded on a barren mountain in Iraq. (Photo Credit: The Times UK)

Dear Friends,Two weeks ago, one of our Peacemakers, the Rev. Canon Andrew White in Iraq, reported that 1,500 Yazidis (an Arab and Kurdish religious community) were executed in one day by ISIS insurgents. These insurgents are moving through Iraq, taking over towns and slaughtering entire communities.

Most of world was unaware of these massacres when Andrew first reported what was happening.

Three days ago, a Yazidi member of Iraqi Parliament collapsed in tears, calling upon the world to rescue the Yazidis. “A whole religion is being wiped out from the earth,” she cried. Click here to watch the video.Two days ago, The New Yorker published a story about these horrors, claiming an even higher death toll than Andrew’s report of 1,500 executed in one day. Click here to read this story.

Thousands of Yazidis have fled to the top of a mountain in Iraq. Yesterday the UN stated that some Yazidis have been rescued. Up to 50,000 Yazidis, however, have fled their homes. If they stay in the mountains, they will starve to death. If they come down, ISIS (now the Islamist State) will most likely execute them. Click here to learn more about another ISIS massacre (WARNING:gruesome images).

Andrew, our Peacemaker, won’t leave Iraq. The Huffington Post interviewed Andrew on video and posted it yesterday. Watch it here.

The humanitarian food drops from Turkey and the United States are important. But they are not the solution. We can help by remaining steadfast and aware of the atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion.

We salute all of our Peacemakers, who – like Andrew – never stop pursuing peace.

Please help by sharing this story with people who also imagine a more peaceful world.

With Sorrow,

Joyce S. Dubensky, CEO

 

Pay Up or Die: Christians in Iraq Update

This man fled from Mosul by car. He checks on his belongings before walking to the Khazair checkpoint. He hopes to travel to Erbil. Many others arrive without any belongings. UNHCR / R. Nuri

Iraqis flee from Mosul. UNHCR / R. Nuri

Have you been following the news about Iraq, ISIS (now IS) and what’s happening to Christians in areas IS controls? Take a quick look with us.

This past Saturday, as reported in Breaking Israel News and other media outlets, the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) “issued a deadline for Christian residents of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to leave, pay, convert or die.

The Islamic State is requiring residents of Mosul to pay the jizyah:

Jizya (sometimes written as jizyah and pronounced “jiz-yuh”), as explained by Forbes, “is the term for a tax paid by non-Muslims. The tax is the result of a centuries old contract called a dhimma. Under a dhimma, non-Muslims who lived in a Muslim state were protected under the law so long as they paid the tax: they were referred to as ahlu dh-dhimmati (people of protection) or simply al-dhimma or dhimmis. The arrangement is sometimes referred to as a ‘residence in return for taxes.’”

The Guardian noted Christians and Muslims lived together in peace in the city of Mosul. An estimated 100,000 Christians lived in Mosul before the U.S. invaded Iraq prior to 2003. The estimated population before last month’s takeover was 5,000. Now Christians are fleeing and The Guardian reported that there are as little as 200 Christians left in the city.

More than a month ago, the Anglican Communion News Service described the growing crisis: “An estimated half a million people, including hundreds of Christian families, are fleeing the area with many attempting to find refuge in the nearby Kurdish provinces of Northern Iraq. At least one Assyrian church in Mosul has been burned down in the recent violence.”

Also in June, Tanenbaum Peacemaker Rev. Canon Andrew White described the growing violence in Iraq:

“Iraq is now in its worst crisis since the 2003 war. ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Group), a group that does not even see Al Qaida as extreme enough, has moved into Mosul, which is Nineveh. It has totally taken control, destroyed all government departments. Allowed all prisoners out of the prisons. Killed countless numbers of people. There are bodies over the streets. The army and police have fled, so many of the military resources have been captured. Tankers, armed vehicles and even helicopters are now in the hands of ISIS.”

For the moment, we are grateful that Andrew is safe. He returned to England on July 15 and, on July 19, sent out a request for prayers on his Facebook page:

“We seriously need your prayers. ISIS have stated they will start killing all the Christians in Mosul from mid-day Saturday unless they convert or pay jazeera tax, this is really serious we need your prayers.”

Meanwhile, Christians who have chosen to stay in Mosul are afraid. But, at the same time, they have found support from their Muslim friends as reported in The New York Times

“A Muslim woman sitting next to her in the pew reached out and whispered, ‘You are the true original people here, and we are sorry for what has been done to you in the name of Islam.’”

At Tanenbaum, we call on all of us to acknowledge what is happening to the Christians in Mosul and to the entire society of which they were such an integral part. We thank our Peacemaker in Action, Andrew White, for what he has done to support the Christian community in Iraq and to overcome the conflicts. We are committed to working with him and our Peacemakers – and to keep pursing a time when we will have a more peaceful world that truly accepts difference.