This week Wheaton College, the evangelical college near Chicago, suspended a popular political science professor for a recent statement of her beliefs. Dr. Larycia Hawkins had taken to wearing a hijab in public during Advent to express solidarity with Muslims who are facing discrimination. In her own words, this was not a protest but an act of "religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book and as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God." The last phrase was what got her into trouble with Wheaton. Dr Hawkins did not see her theology as being out of line with Evangelicalism, in fact, she quoted the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf who has spoken at Wheaton and authored a book on Muslim-Christian relations as saying the same thing. Volf wrote an op-ed piece supporting Hawkins in today's Washington Post.
Volf made the point that Muslims, and Jews and Christians have different ways of understanding God as well as some similar ways but this does not preclude us from saying we worship the same God. Islam does not believe in the Trinity, nor the divinity of Jesus and his crucifixion. Jewish people do not either. Yet, would there be the animosity toward a Christian who affirmed we worship the same God as Jews do? Volf attributes much of this firestorm over the tensions between "us Christians" and "them Muslims" right now. Many people see all Muslims as harboring hatred toward America. There has been an increase in firebombing and vandalism at Muslim worship centers and mosques. Hawkins is trying to build bridges instead of destroying them. On her facebook post she wrote: asserting our religious solidarity with Muslims and Jews will go a long way toward quelling religious violence..."
Due to the recent terrorist attacks fears about Muslims among Christians have been heightened. Some Christians believe that all Muslims are potential terrorists and that Islam is about taking over the world. Marco Rubio recently said as much when he said ISIS wants to see its black flag flying over our national capitol. For too many people ISIS translates as Muslim. I have had people tell me Muslims are infiltrating President Obama's administration in order to prepare for a takeover. There are Muslims serving in congress and our military as Paul Ryan pointed out when he made it clear he does not believe all Muslims are a threat to our security.
The three major religions (Muslims and Christians make up half of all the people in the world), have plenty of violent clashes in their histories. Not all of them were because of religious hostility. Several were fought over territory, oil and political power. With both Christianity and Islam on the increase worldwide the potential for clashes between the two will not go away.
It makes sense to try to understand each other and work together. That has happened often in the past as well. In the past month, the president of Liberty University in a speech in chapel encouraged his students to carry guns so that if Muslims ever come there his Christian students can put an end to them. Not exactly a bridge building attempt at understanding between cultures and religions.
There is much we have in common with Muslims. President Bush reminded us of that when he said "the God that Muslims pray to is the same God I pray to." Not all Christians agree with that - note the suspension of Dr Hawkins. But, as she said, it is a position that has been taken by numerous Christian leaders throughout history.
There are many different understandings of God among Christians even within the same congregations! Charles Kimball a Southern Baptist pastor and professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma said, "there is in my view no ambiguity at all that Muslims, Christians, and Jews are talking about the same God. What I have found is that this is more of a device that Christian religious leaders use to drive a wedge between Christians and Jews on one side and Muslims on the other."
There is a lot of wedge driving going on right now. There are also opportunities for Christians to gain understanding about what Muslims believe (a good book to read is Allah: A Christian Response by Miroslav Volf) as well as ways to tone down the harmful rhetoric against Muslims that leads to more fear. In many places there are intereligious venues available to work together on community building and peaceful projects.
We need more acts of religious solidarity like that of Dr Hawkins if we want peace rather than violence to prevail in the future.