On December 10, 2015, Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins logged onto Facebook and unwittingly made a post that would explode her life. It was just days after a married couple inspired by jihadist ideology had committed the San Bernardino massacre, and figures like Donald Trump, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Ted Cruz were vocally and publicly demonizing Muslims. A political scientist — and the first black woman to gain tenure at the Illinois college, the nation’s most renowned evangelical Christian school — Hawkins realized the further violence their message could incite, as well as the danger it posed to something she felt all Christians should hold dear: religious liberty, the right of all to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation.
As an act of “embodied solidarity” with Muslim women who publicly wear signs of their faith, Hawkins pledged to wear a hijab throughout the Christmas season. On Facebook, she posted a picture of herself doing so, along with the message: “I stand in 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…”
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The documentary Same God, which airs this weekend on PBS’s World Channel, traces the aftermath of that post — how the historically defensible implication that Christians and Muslims share a deity, if not a theology, cost Hawkins her job, her safety, and her security. Five days after her Facebook post, she was put on administrative leave. On January 5th — despite a public uproar, protests by students, and Hawkins’ repeated affirmation of the Wheaton College Statement of Faith (essentially, a commitment to evangelical Christian ideals) — the school announced that it was firing her. Rather than standing up for the oppressed, as Jesus preached and Hawkins practiced, Wheaton quickly terminated the employment of the only black woman it had granted tenure since it was founded by abolitionists in 1860 (while not firing white men who had come to Hawkins’ theological defense).
The school’s decision not only exposes the lie behind calls for religious freedom made by powerful Christian institutions that don’t want to see their power (or tax exemption) diminished, and who advocate complete freedom for themselves while being content to see it wrested from others; it also calls into question what faith is — and what it should stand in service to. Throughout the film, what is most poignant is the obvious pain that Hawkins experiences at the implication that her Christianity isn’t real. In one of the most powerful scenes, she visits the church she grew up in, the church her grandfather pastored until he died of a heart attack two days after he baptized her. “Will you show me where the racial slur, the ‘COONVILLE’ was painted?” Hawkins asks her grandmother of the vandalism that marred the church in 2016, as they walk its grounds. “This part,” her grandmother answers, sweeping her arm across the side of the red-brick building. The moment passes quickly, but it makes its point: For the black church in America, persecution is not an amorphous concept. Ironically, the act of solidarity that ended Hawkins’ career at Wheaton embodies exactly what she thinks Christian advocacy is about.
Backed up by interviews with biblical scholars from none other than Wheaton itself, Same God pointedly reveals the flaws in dogmatic Christianity, the cost of speaking truth to power, and the amazing strength of a woman standing by her convictions. It’s a tale of David and Goliath, a testament to the power of faith.
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