(RNS) — In a year as combustible and exhausting as 2020, it’s difficult to remember what happened last week, much less five years ago. But in early December 2015, the pot that has since boiled over into breathtaking polarization and cancel culture within evangelicalism and our country was merely simmering. I don’t think many of us knew what was coming. With the exception, perhaps, of Larycia Hawkins.
On the evening of Dec. 10, 2015, Hawkins, a Black, Christian woman, sat down at her computer and made a personal Facebook post. A tenured political science professor at evangelical Wheaton College (my alma mater), Hawkins wanted to reach out to Muslim women, who were increasingly being targeted for hate crimes.
In her post, Hawkins announced her intent to wear a hijab as an act of “embodied solidarity” during Advent, the liturgical season we’re in again now, in which we lament the darkness of this world and await the light of Christ. Quoting Pope Francis, Hawkins added that Muslims and Christians worship the “same God,” the God of Abraham.
Her post went live, and she expected perhaps a few hundred responses. Instead, an agonizing, two-month, public lynching ensued — in the name of theology.
ARCHIVE: Controversy over Wheaton professor’s hijab captures evangelical rift in new film
Same God? How dare she. Blogs, articles, talk radio, they all speculated on whether she understood the exclusionary salvific claims of Jesus. THIS WASN’T ABOUT RACE, they often screamed in all caps. The color of her skin was irrelevant, they insisted, even if she did look suspiciously Muslim with her brown skin in a headscarf.
I wanted to understand why evangelicals were so outraged against Hawkins. How could people who read the same Scriptures be so divided on whether she was a heretic or hero? I began filming with her, documenting her eventual dismissal from Wheaton College and the loss of her tenure, her paycheck, her colleagues, her apartment, her public standing, her sense of belonging, even her book club.
Hawkins struggled with PTSD and engulfing depression as she was rendered invisible and deficient in the eyes of the white Christian establishment that we call evangelicalism in this country.
Over the years that I filmed Hawkins, white evangelicals shocked the world by helping to elect Donald Trump, crowning him their “Cyrus” — a biblical reference to a pagan king appointed by God himself. The new president promptly enacted his so-called Muslim travel ban, and Muslim-Americans officially became pariahs in the U.S. At a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Heather Heyer was murdered, those who fulminated the violence were called “very good people.”
Many of my African American church friends were anguished, flabbergasted that their white brethren seemed unable or unwilling to comprehend their trauma. Then came the killing of George Floyd — and COVID — and the barely suppressed tensions over race erupted on the streets.
If there was room in 2015 at the time to be surprised at how quickly Hawkins was ousted, that’s no longer the case. In the current climate, only a fool would wear a hijab or publicly support Black Lives Matter without anticipating being exiled from evangelical precincts.
White Christian nationalism, something I had never thought of or given words to when I began filming with Hawkins, has revealed itself in the evangelical church like an evil genie emerging from a bottle. It won’t easily be contained, no matter who is our president.
Very few evangelicals have sought to understand what Hawkins was conveying when she posted that life-altering, life-crushing message five years ago. I wish Wheaton College and my fellow self-identified evangelicals had taken more time simply to be curious. To wonder what this sister in Christ from an African American tradition, who was baptized by her grandfather, was saying.
I wish they had slowed down to reflect on “embodied solidarity” — the idea of putting our bodies in the physical space of the most oppressed and marginalized, as opposed to just sending thoughts and prayers. They might have realized that this is exactly what Jesus did when he took on the form of our broken flesh and was laid in a manger on the very first Christmas.
I wish they had read the Facebook post more carefully and realized that when she talked about human solidarity, she was making the point that our shared humanity — and the belief that we are all made in the image of God — is ultimately more important than any tradition or tribe to which we belong. It is the foundation for any civilization.
ARCHIVE: Larycia Hawkins documentary shows the cost of embodied solidarity
I wish that when they recoiled at the idea that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, they had considered how dehumanizing it is to say to any person — Muslim, Jewish, Hindu — that not only do we not believe the same things about God, we don’t even share the same Creator. If we don’t share the same Creator, we aren’t all equally human. We are all seeing in real time how apocalyptically dangerous it is to dehumanize our neighbors.
I wish, above all, that evangelicals had stopped to consider that maybe, just maybe, Hawkins’ own body — the color of her skin, her gender — factored into their easy ability to dismiss her and her words with shocking ruthlessness.
None of that happened. And we evangelicals are the worse for it. I firmly believe that, had her words and actions, which now feel prophetic, been taken more seriously, we may not be at this precarious place, in which people of color are losing hope that their voices will ever be heard in the evangelical church.
It’s a place, too, in which evangelicals are known not for their love, but for their antipathy to science, fascination with conspiracy theories, and a relentless, hell-bent pursuit of political and cultural power. A place in which we are so polarized as a church, it seems that we ourselves don’t worship the same God.
I hope it is not too late.
(Linda Midgett is the director and producer of “Same God,” a documentary about Larycia Hawkins. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)