Who do you want to be?

by Mariam Williams

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Who do you want to be? It's an underlying question that marks the beginning of every year. The statements, "New Year, new you," and "This is the year you …" imply there is something about yourself that you should let go of, and something else you should aspire to. The new year suggests, almost demands, change.

Most of us embrace the blank slate of January, but I think subtle nudges toward the new, and also implicit or outright calls for change, are challenging for people who cling to tradition and to nostalgic ideals of the past. Every year, and usually at faster intervals, we all must confront rapid change and the opportunity to answer to the question, who do you want to be?

A related question: does the person you want to be have room for complexities? I've been thinking about these questions since the end of 2015, when Wheaton College administrators suspended Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor at the college. (The college began termination proceedings on Jan. 4.) As part of her observance of Advent, Hawkins decided to don a hijab to show "religious solidarity with Muslims because … we worship the same God." Officials said they took no issue with her wearing the hijab, but questioned her theological basis for stating that Muslims and Christians, both followers of Abrahamic faiths, worship the same God. They believe the statement stands in conflict with the college's statement of faith, a statement all faculty are required to sign and live out.

The Chicago Tribune reported that in her nine years of employment at Wheaton College, Hawkins has been asked to reaffirm the statement of faith four times. The first was to defend an academic paper about black liberation theology. According to the Tribune, Wheaton's provost thought the paper "endorsed a kind of Marxism." The second time, Hawkins was suspected of attending a party in the same location and on the same day as Chicago's Gay Pride Parade. The third time came after she suggested "that diversifying the college curriculum should include diplomatic vocabulary for conversations around sexuality," according to the Tribune.

As I read about the incidents that have prompted Wheaton officials to press Hawkins to confirm her commitment to their theology, I think that her firing has less to do with whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God than it does with the college's identity in the midst of a changing and pluralistic society. From the limited amount of information available, I gather that Hawkins was open and ready to have challenging conversations about protestant Christianity, race and sexuality. It appears she was living out her faith by demonstrating solidarity with several groups of oppressed people, something an institution clinging to a rigid interpretation of the gospel would have trouble handling.

In addition to a statement of faith, Wheaton College also has a community covenant. According to the college's website, the covenant is considered a social compact that all community members adhere to. President Philip Ryken has defined the covenant not as a list of rules, but rather "a statement of holy obligations that we undertake … because they are true to the character of our Savior." As followers of Christ, Wheaton community members are obligated to "seek righteousness, mercy and justice, particularly for the helpless and oppressed" and to "abhor what is evil in God's eyes." The covenant also notes that homosexuality is among the behaviors Scripture condemns.

While the covenant recognizes that an evangelical college is "a complex Christian community of living, learning, and serving that cannot be reduced to a simple model," Wheaton officials appear to be opposed to allowing Hawkins to examine the complexities of Christian life.

Let's say Hawkins was at a gay pride party, and she wasn't there to exorcise anyone's homosexuality. Suppose she was there as an ally, holding up her holy obligation to seek righteousness, mercy and justice, but not abhorring homosexuality. Did she break a promise to the Wheaton community? To God?

Let's say she wanted curriculum-based conversations about sexuality to be diplomatic rather than condemning. Was she encouraging her students' "spiritual, moral and intellectual growth," or condoning sexual behavior outside of marriage?

Hawkins' race and gender offer additional complexities her superiors don't seem ready to address. As a sister black intellectual, I would find it hard to believe Hawkins has never wrestled with her place in a faith that demands freedom and equality, but also was used to demonize her African ancestors and justify their enslavement and that still carries remnants of anti-blackness. Black liberation theology could have been among the tools she used to come to terms with that tension and to teach others about Christian principles of freedom and equality for all people, including women, who -- in the Bible's most literal interpretations -- continue to be cast as beneath men. Not having been able to find the academic paper the Tribune referenced, I can't speak to the accusation of Marxism, but I can see how black liberation theology would fit in with encouraging "spiritual, moral and intellectual growth" and with seeking righteousness and justice for the oppressed. I can also understand how it might interfere with the belief that the Bible is "inerrant in the original writing."

What I'm saying is, committing to words and dogma is easy. Imitating the Savior in a period and culture he did not live in, is not. Christ is who we want to be like, but imitating him requires nuance, discernment, rigorous study, mercy and for humans, trial and error. It may mean you can love justice and mercy but not hate homosexuality, or that you can both believe every word of the Bible is true and that some interpretations of it have been too convenient for people in power.

For Hawkins, it has not meant she can both confirm Wheaton's statement of faith and keep her job, but I hope it leads to both parties further examining the complexities of who they want to be.

[Mariam Williams is a Kentucky writer living in Philadelphia and pursuing MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. She is a contributor to the anthology Faithfully Feminist and blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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