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Opinion Wheaton professor’s suspension is about anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology

Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science at Wheaton College, a private evangelical school in Wheaton, Ill., wears a hijab at a church service in Chicago. The school reaffirmed on Dec. 16 that Hawkins will remain on administrative leave because of statements she made on social media about similarities between Islam and Christianity. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune via AP)
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A professor of political science at Wheaton College, Larycia Hawkins, was put on an administrative leave because of a theological claim.

[College suspends professor who claimed Muslims and Christians worship the same God]

Appealing in part to arguments in my book “Allah: A Christian Response,” Hawkins asserted that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She did not insist that Christians and Muslims believe the same things about that one God. She did not state that Islam and Christianity are the same religion under a different name, or even that Islam is equally as true as Christianity. She did not deny that God was incarnate in Christ. Neither did she contest that the one God is the Holy Trinity.

In fact, by having signed Wheaton’s Statement of Faith, she affirmed her belief in God as the Trinity and Jesus Christ as God and man, fundamental Christian convictions which, among other things, distinguish Christian faith from Islam.

There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims. More precisely, her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.

What is theologically wrong with asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, according to Hawkins’s opponents — and mine? Muslims deny the Trinity and incarnation, and, therefore, the Christian God and Muslim God cannot be the same. But the conclusion doesn’t square. And Christians, though historically not friendly to either Judaism or the Jews, have rightly resisted that line of thinking when it comes to the God of Israel.

For centuries, a great many Orthodox Jews have strenuously objected to those same Christian convictions: Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being, Jesus Christ, and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. What was the Christian response?

Christian theologians neither insisted that they worship a different God than Jews nor did they accuse Jews of idolatry. That’s a step that would have been easy to make, for if Jews don’t worship the same God as the Christians, then they worship the false God and, therefore, are idolaters. Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in in partly different ways.

[As Muslim women, we actually ask you not to wear the ‘hijab’ in the name of interfaith solidarity]

Why is the Christian response to Muslim denial of the Trinity and the incarnation not the same as the response to similar Jewish denial? Why are many Christians today unable to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God but understand God in partly different ways?

Many Christians today see themselves at war with the Islamic State and, by a deeply problematic extension, with the Islam itself. War, like enmity in general, requires clear and hard boundaries. We define our enemies as what we are not; we take any blurring of those boundaries as a threat to the legitimacy of our enmity. In the realm of political action, such sharp and hard boundaries, as the writer David Brooks recently noted, result in the kind of demagoguery we hear from Donald Trump, who belligerently places Muslims, along with others who disagree with him, before “the following bigoted choice: Submit or be rejected.”

In the realm of religious convictions, enmity demands exclusivity of in-group convictions. It is not just that we insist that we aren’t our enemies; we cannot have anything in common with them either.

When Hawkins justified her solidarity with Muslims by noting that as a Christian she worships the same God as Muslims, she committed the unpardonable sin of removing the enemy from the category of “alien” and “purely evil” other. She also drew attention to the simple fact that most Muslims aren’t enemies.

In addition to contesting the Trinity and the incarnation, Muslims also contest the Christian claim that God is love — unconditional and indiscriminate love. There is no claim in Islam that God “justifies the ungodly” and no command to love one’s enemies. But these are the signature claims of the Christian faith. Take the redemption of the ungodly and the love of enemy out of the Christian faith, and you un-Christian it.

I wish that those who insist that Christians worship an altogether different God than Muslims latched on to this difference — that instead of wanting to “end” Muslims they deem to be their enemies in the name of God, they would seek to embrace them in the name of Christ. If they did so, they would need to show how struggle against enemies is a way of loving them — an argument that many great theologians in the past were willing to make.

And if they did so, they would praise Hawkins for deciding to wear a hijab in solidarity with innocent Muslims who are objects of hatred because so-called Islamic State cites Islam to justify its terrorism.

Miroslav Volf, author of “Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World,” teaches theology at Yale University and is the founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.

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