Over the weekend the Wheaton College administration brokered a deal to “part ways” with tenured professor Dr. Larycia Hawkins. I believe this melee at Wheaton is emblematic of a national struggle for the future of evangelicalism in the U.S.
Hawkins' act of solidarity with scapegoated people of Islamic faith — wearing a hijab on campus — and her Facebook statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God struck a nerve within Wheaton College’s white, politically conservative administration. Ultimately, the public act of solidarity challenged the assumption of white, male, Christian supremacy — the assumption that whites, men, and Christians are more human than anyone else.
Over the past year and a half, since the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I have witnessed a deep shift within evangelical America. I cannot tell you how many private meetings (and phone calls) I have been invited to where white evangelical leaders call together black evangelicals to help them understand something they admit they just could not get. These meetings came in quick succession, one by one, a year ago after grand juries declared the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner would not face trial. Protests exploded in major cities across the nation and many evangelical organizations began to feel pressure from the inside as black evangelicals began to question their colleagues' silence.
Some of these meetings and calls are bearing fruit to this day. Others were flashes in the pan followed by one programmatic shift in one event, followed by silence.
Humming in the background behind it all, America watched Donald Trump use inflammatory rhetoric about black people, immigrants of color, and people of Islamic faith. Avowed white supremacist groups backed him along with a large share of evangelical voters. And some of his fellow candidates — vying for the same evangelical vote — have spewed the same destructive policies using nicer, more "reasonable" language.
In the year since those private meetings with leaders, a groundswell of protest has risen from the grassroots of evangelical America: More than 60 national faith leaders and nearly 1,000 local and regional leaders signed Sojourners' thank you letter to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Urbana15 for their demonstration of support for #BlackLivesMatter.
National and local evangelical faith leaders and congregations joined and supported the protests in Chicago and Minneapolis in response to police killings of black men there.
Then the grassroots rose up in support of Dr. Larycia Hawkins — the first tenured black professor at Wheaton College in 150 years — when the college administration was so offended by her solidarity with Muslim neighbors that they moved to revoke her tenure. Alumni, students, and faculty rose up in protest. They said "No!" They named the evil at work in the administration. It is the same evil that has caused InterVarsity donors to revoke dollars after Michelle Higgins' prophetic indictment of evangelical hypocrisy at Urbana15: We say we are "pro-life," but we refuse to protect the lives of the born— foster children; black men, women, and children killed by police; and immigrant families fleeing persecution and starvation.
The roots of evangelical faith are rising. They are fighting the tyranny of white supremacy and its money. They are calling evangelicals to determine now: "What is the future of the evangelical church?"
Twenty years from now, will we continue to be what we have been throughout the entire 20th century and into the 21st? Or will we repent the white supremacist distortions of Christian faith that caused the rise of fundamentalism to directly coincide with the rise in lynchings, Jim Crow, and race riots in the South and Midwest? Will evangelicals face this history that shapes our current institutions? And will evangelicals repent?
America cannot heal of its original sin until evangelicals repent, for we have been the prime protectors of white supremacy for the last 100 years.
But we have an earlier heritage we can return to. Wheaton College was founded as a hotbed of abolitionist activity. InterVarsity traces its heritage back to William Wilberforce, whose activism ended the Atlantic Slave Trade. They and their contemporaries laid the foundations for true evangelicalism. We are a faith born out of the fires of the abolitionist movement. We laid the foundations for the women’s suffrage movement. We believe in the call to repentance. We believe in Paul's call to let our minds be renewed. And we believe in the transformative power of the cross to heal the world. We believe that our faith must be worked out in our bodies. It is not enough to believe precepts, we must live it.
So, when Dr. Larycia Hawkins placed that hijab over her head in #embodiedsolidarity with persecuted Muslims, she was embodying the spirit of evangelicalism — public witness When she said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, she was exemplifying the spirit of evangelicalism evident in Scripture — where the God of Abraham blessed Ishmael, the father of the Arab people.
There is a struggle for the future of evangelicalism being waged right now in front of our eyes.
Will we view the coming demographic shift with fear and trembling? Will we follow the Wheaton administration's lead — bunker down and expunge any who refuse to toe the line of 20th century white male Christian supremacist evangelicalism? Or will we heed Charles Finney's call to recognize that it is impossible to claim that we are under the authority of God if we remain hell-bent on ignoring, oppressing, and erasing the image of God in our midst?
Now is the time to decide: Which evangelical future will we choose?
Join us, along with Wheaton College students, on Wednesday as we lament the move of the administration to expunge one who refused to toe the line of white supremacy. And stand with them as they launch a 40 Day Fast of Embodied Solidarity. I will lead a faith-rooted organizing training on Wednesday afternoon and there will be a Twitter Lament on Wednesday night at 9:30 p.m. ET at#evangelicals4justice #DocHawk.