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Questions Remain After Larycia Hawkins, Wheaton College Sever Ties

The two sides heaped praise on each other at a press conference announcing their split. So why is Hawkins leaving? Past clashes—revealed in an interview with Chicago—may provide a clue.

Above: Larycia Hawkins is joined by supporters at Wednesday’s press conference.   Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Until a few days ago, it seemed like the roiling battle between the tiny but elite evangelical Wheaton College and a tenured professor over her remarks on Islam and Muslims would rage for months, with both sides seemingly dug in and girded for a siege, and with the national media from the New York Times to Time magazine poised to parse report each development.

Today, in fact, professor Larycia Hawkins, a Christian, had been scheduled to be put on academic trial over her remarks—specifically, for a December 10 Facebook post in which she expressed her solidarity with Muslims by echoing a line from Pope Francis during his visit to the U.S. that Muslims, Jews, and Christians actually worship the same God.

Instead, a surprise joint statement issued on Saturday said the two sides had reached a “place of resolution and reconciliation” that included an apology to Hawkins by the school’s president and a mutual agreement that the two part ways.

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Given the rhetoric in the weeks leading up to this moment, the announcement was stunning. Was the college now admitting Hawkins, an award winning teacher who had taught at the school since 2007, had been right after all? And if so, why was she leaving? And if she’d been apologized to by the president, why would would she want to part ways with a school where she was revered by, and revered, her students and many faculty?

The answers, it was hoped, would come in a joint press conference yesterday at downtown’s First United Methodist Church. Instead, in a tear-stained press event that seemed at times like a church service, and during which both sides, so at odds, lavished praise on the other, the reasons behind the parting were barely discussed and even then only in the vaguest of terms. Both sides declined to take questions afterward.

Wheaton President Philip Ryken, for example, said the school needed “forgiveness” over the school’s handling of the controversy, which many saw as ham-handed if not discriminatory, and pledged to move “forward in genuine friendship, wishing each other well and wanting to bless each other and our work.”

“We are saddened by the brokenness that we have experienced in our relationship and for the suffering this has caused on our campus and beyond,” he said. He praised Hawkins and announced that the school will create an endowed scholarship for interns in a program established by Hawkins. He also pledged that the college will host a Jewish or Muslim scholar twice a year to spur interfaith dialogue and vowed to bring together faculty to explore better ways of handling personnel issues.

Hawkins, meanwhile, tears streaming down her cheeks at times, praised her students, saying, “Just because I walk away from Wheaton College does not mean I walk away from them.” She added, “I will always stand with Wheaton College.”

Except she won’t. At least not in an official capacity.

So why would she quit a job about which she seemed so passionate, a place where she was so beloved and respected? Since Hawkins isn’t talking, any answer would be speculation.  And the terms of the agreement are confidential.

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I had been able to interview Hawkins at length in the two weeks leading up to the resolution announcement. In those interviews, and in contrast to the love fest at Wednesday’s press conference, Hawkins described her time at Wheaton as rocky almost from the beginning.

Specifically, she told me, she had been called on the carpet on three other occasions and forced—as she was in the current imbroglio—to reaffirm the school’s “Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose,” a kind of creed that spells out Wheaton’s Christian identity as it sees it. In short, she was called on to reaffirm her Christian faith and justify her actions.

One of those incidents arose, she says, during an effort to develop a “diversity curriculum” for the school. Hawkins said that after she suggested adding both sexual and religious diversity to a “guiding paragraph,” she was cornered by school Provost Stan Jones and asked to affirm the statement of faith.

Another came after she was spotted in a Facebook photo showing her attending a Gay Pride Parade party. Again, she says, she would be summoned before Jones and required to sign the statement of faith.

A third run-in came after she wrote a paper on black liberation theology. “I was asked, ‘How can you say these things? How can you teach these things in the classroom and do you affirm the statement of faith?’ So at that point I have to write a theological statement of my Christian testimony and what I believe basically to prove … that I’m Christian.”

The current controversy exploded in the media after Hawkins’ Facebook post in which she said, “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.”

The message earned Hawkins praise for her tolerance and compassion among some and caused an uproar among others, who likened the idea of the two religions worshipping the same God to blasphemy. Muddying the waters has been a disagreement among theological scholars, including Christians, over the contention.

More than 800 alumni signed a letter supporting Hawkins. Hundreds of others withdrew applications from the college.

Internet commenters, meanwhile, unleashed an online “hate storm,” as the Religion News Service called it, including a torrent of misogynistic, Islamophobic, and racist rants. (“Suspended? Why not from a lamp post,” one commenter said, according to RNS. “Any institution that continues to employ this piece of filth does not deserve to be called a “Christian college,” wrote another. “To openly express her solidarity with Muslims, she should submit not only to wearing a scarf, but to an ‘honor killing.’ ASAP!” wrote a third.)  One death threat prompted an FBI investigation.

At issue were no less than the bounds of academic freedom, whether one of the country’s most highly regarded evangelical colleges was anti-Muslim, and, for Wheaton, the very heart of how it defines itself.

At Wednesday’s press conference, however, there were only smiles, tears, and heartfelt expressions of support, as Hawkins and school officials filed from the downtown chapel, with some presumably headed back to Wheaton, and others, namely Hawkins, headed anywhere but.

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