Wheaton College has begun the process of terminating associate professor Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins was put on administrative leave after donning a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women while stating on a Facebook post that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This is all happening despite the fact that Hawkins has affirmed the statement of faith of the college.
The whole controversy feels like the conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well. The woman wanted to focus on their differences of faith and the right worship of God. Jesus focused on the more important thing – the woman.
Perhaps we are once again sitting at the well, focusing on something that is both important – for the right worship of God is an important issue – and at the same time missing the point.
In the second chapter of Mark’s gospel we find five stories where Jesus is conflicting with the Pharisees who also seem to be missing the point, substituting the lesser thing for the most important thing. The conflicts are about Jesus’s apparent blasphemy, eating with sinners, the disciples feasting instead of fasting, working on the sabbath and healing on the sabbath. In each case Jesus put human need over ritual observance.
On the one hand, we’d like to shake our heads at the Pharisees who failed to understand who Jesus was and is, but a quick condemnation of the Pharisees misses the point work the Pharisees were actually doing.
When Rome took control of Judea they did what they always did: brought their culture along with them. A king who supported Rome was put in power (Herod Antipas), gymnasiums were built, philosophy taught, sexual ethics put on display, and locals were asked to participate in the empire. When we understand this we begin to see that the desire of the Pharisees to ensure the rituals observance wasn’t just about religion – although it was – but expressing God’s vision for humanity through the right practice of the faith as understood by the Pharisees. Keeping the Sabbath separated the sacred from the secular. Eating with sinners was about what was righteous and unrighteous, clean and unclean. Challenged by cultural pressures these rituals became necessary acts to maintain the faith.
Jean Vanier described this phenomenon when he wrote,
When religion closes people up in their own particular group, it puts belonging to the group, and its success and growth, above love and vulnerability towards others; it no longer nourishes and opens the heart. When this happens religion becomes and ideology, that is to say, a series of ideas that we impose on ourselves, as well as on others; it closes us up behind walls.*
Understood in this light we can see how Jesus’s actions threatened the social order the Pharisees were trying to hold together by calling people to place human needs above ritual observance. Rather than an inward movement of preservation, Jesus turned people outward to see the lost and broken, hurting and helpless, sick and marginalized whom he came to save.
The college’s move to terminate Professor Hawkins, despite her affirmation of Wheaton’s statement of faith, reveals an anxious need to protect ideological boundaries that are being threatened. By their very nature ideologies are not open to new ideas. The consideration of a new reality, one that expands boundaries or creates a more open community, is not even up for debate. The status quo must be preserved lest new ideas undermine the ideological stability needed to ward off challenges to faith brought about by a pluralistic society. Under this mode of operation new wineskins are not just unwelcome, they are an active threat to be guarded against.
Wheaton’s response is another form of this kind of insulation, only this time, rather than isolating ourselves and not letting others in, we cast out and purge that which is unclean.But this isn’t just about Wheaton. It’s about all of evangelicalism.
On a whole, American Evangelicalism seems to be turning inward in an attempt to shield itself from the outside culture. One example is Rod Dreher’s call for the Benedict Option, a sort of Christian retreat from culture into insular communities designed to preserve religious distinctions. But we see it in multiple forms: the lack of diversity in conference speakers, the outrage over World Vision’s stance on employee sexuality, the fear surrounding helping Syrian refugees after Paris. Crossing evangelicalism’s traditional boundaries are perceived as a threat and met with animosity and conflict.
It isn’t that different than when Jesus stoked the anger of the Pharisees in Mark 2. Both groups, the Pharisees of Jesus time and modern American evangelicalism, feel threatened by the surrounding culture. Both desire to separate themselves in practice and belief as they are pressed by an increasing secularism or paganism.
Jesus response to the Pharisees, I believe, is his word to us: something new is here. Jesus tells the Pharisees you don’t put new wine in an old wineskin. You need a new wineskin. The fall of Christendom is the passing away of an old wineskin. We need a new wineskin. This is new thing won’t call us to abandon our faith – even Jesus didn’t bring in a completely new thing. Rather, he interpreted the scriptures and the vision for humanity as laid out by God very differently than the Pharisees.
As the church continues to figure out how to exist in a post-Christian society the question before us is, will our efforts to be distinct from culture come through ritual observance and strict boundary keeping, or will it come through radical concern for the other? Do we cut off relationship with those who think differently than us and make it harder for people to come into community with us, or do we change how we approach our differences? Are we willing to start with a new garment?
I believe the time has come for Christian communities to practice hospitality. Not niceness, but the radical welcoming of the other. Inviting the stranger to the table because we believe that, as human beings, they have a right to belong. The time has come to understand that the Spirit of the Living Christ, the one who touches the unclean and does not become unclean, lives in us. Jesus did not call his followers to remain within the boundaries of an ideology, but to break from an help those in need. This is the point of the Good Samaritan – to help the one we deem “other”, even if it means others see us as unclean.
To be clear, I am not talking about a syncretic approach to the Christian faith, nor am I talking about a disregarding every important truth claim Christianity makes. But, if evangelicalism is going to survive, if it is going to be a robust expression of the Christian faith and not slide into a neo-fundamentalist movement entrenched in culture wars then it must allow for a diversity of thought – especially at its centers of education. If there is any place where dialogue can happen around the diversity of ideas about how we relate to our neighbors it should be in our universities and colleges. Wheaton’s actions put on full display the insecurity of evangelicalism in America.
It seems like, with recent actions, that a diversity of thought is a threat. Which makes me wonder if we could sit down with the Samaritan woman at the well and have the conversation Jesus did. Because our current actions show us more interested in making sure people know that we worship God on the right hill than understanding who they are.
*Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, (Toronto, House of Anansi Press, 2008), pg. 63.