A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)
Thursday, January 21, 2016
The God of Refugees, Part 5: Moabites, Muslims, and Evangelical Space
I want to begin by thanking Allan for the invitation and opportunity to post some of my reflections on this blog-- and allowing me to add a fifth post that redirects the thread of this series to a present controversy within evangelicalism.
I speak of what is transpiring at Wheaton College with reference to Professor Larycia Hawkins, who decided in December to wear the hijab as a gesture of solidarity with Muslims and explained her decision in part by a reference to Christians and Muslims as people of the book and a quotation from Pope Francis that the two religions worship the same God. It was the explanation that provoked the firestorm, prompting the Wheaton administration to require that Professor Hawkins explain how her statements cohered with Wheaton’s statement of faith: Wheaton College Suspends Hijab-Wearing Professor after "Same God" Comment: Her explanation evidently has not been satisfactory, as the Wheaton administration has now initiated termination proceedings. Wheaton Is Planning to Fire Professor.
I suspect that there is more going on behind the scenes than meets the media eye. We who watch from the outside surely do not have the full picture. The press accounts just as surely spin the circumstances in various ways. That said, my interest is in how the discourse about these events illumines once the central role that rules, principles, and propositions play in defining evangelical thinking and practice.
Rules, principles, affirmations, and practices comprise primary components of what sociologists call the "internal boundaries" that define the identity of a group. Internal boundaries provide a necessary coherence to the group by articulating what makes the group distinctive and unique. A good example of how these internal boundaries are expressed in Christian culture can be seen in statements of faith and congregational mission statements that announce to members and to those outside, "This is who we are."
Real or perceived threats to a group’s identity, however, often drive a group to fixate on the boundaries in order to maintain group integrity. Facing the rising floodwaters of change, the tendency is to reinforce the levees so that the group will not be damaged or washed away. The impulse works most forcefully in and through those who occupy positions of power and influence and who have the most to lose if change happens too quickly or drastically.
So it is with contemporary American evangelicalism as American society becomes increasingly more diverse and contested. Maintaining and enforcing the boundaries-- deciding who's in and who's out, defining the "biblical position" on any given issue, monitoring teachers and leaders for doctrinal integrity-- has always been an essential evangelical practice. It's an outflow of the dichotomized way that evangelicals customarily think and speak: conservative vs. liberal, biblical vs. humanistic, truth vs. error, evangelism vs. social gospel, exegesis vs. eisegesis, complementarian vs. egalitarian, etc.
For many years now, mainstream evangelicals have been devoting considerable energy and resources to reinforcing the boundaries, which may explain why administrators at Wheaton responded so quickly and forcefully to a perceived breach in the levee. The dichotomy du jour is Christian vs. Muslim, presenting in this instance as an argument about Same God vs. Different God. To a statement of hospitality and charity that blurs that dichotomy, the response from those in authority, perhaps predictably, has been a demand that Professor Hawkins explain her adherence to doctrinal affirmations to the authorities’ satisfaction, followed by a move to expel her from the community.
Here's the bigger problem. When Christian discipleship becomes primarily a matter of adhering to principles, declarations, and practices, so much attention is directed toward the boundaries that the vision at heart of the gospel is lost. Staying within the boundaries comes to be seen as the quintessence of Christian faithfulness, and the loving of God and others that sums up the commandments recedes into the background. As a result, we declare some things "devoted," but void God's word for the sake of fidelity to our traditions. We tithe dill and cumin but neglect justice, mercy, and faith. We strain gnats and swallow camels.
The gospels make a point of reporting that Jesus repeatedly went outside the geographical and social boundaries that defined respectable Judaism – to places he had no business being and people with whom he had no business associating. To a demoniac in the Decapolis. To a Syrophoenician woman in the region of Tyre. To a thirsty woman in Samaria. I have a feeling that Jesus didn’t go to these places because of wanderlust or a malfunctioning GPS. He was teaching his followers: Sometimes the love of God takes us outside the boundaries.
Professor Hawkins' action and explanatory statement correspond to the welcome that Boaz extended to the Moabite woman who appeared, seeking a better life, in the field outside Bethlehem. Ruth entered a strange space, alone and vulnerable, with every reason to believe that she might be ostracized and harassed-- a scenario not unlike that which Muslim immigrants to the United States face with the spouting of anti-Muslim even from people in high places. Boaz's welcome of the Moabite clearly ran counter to the Mosaic commandment. Whether Professor Hawkins words of solidarity run counter to evangelical affirmations is a matter of debate. In the words and actions of both, however, we see an expression of Christian hospitality that says to the immigrant other: "Stay in this place with us. You belong here."
Welcoming the foreigner reminds us that love trumps legalism. Laws and standards are important and necessary elements of group identity, but they are not ends in themselves. Rather, they serve the ends of God’s saving purposes and work in the world-- a truth Jesus emphasized pointedly when he responded to a squadron of Pharisaic Thought Police who challenged him on a point of law: "The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath."
The case at Wheaton is a teaching moment for evangelicalism in America. I hope we learn something.