In 1897, the city of Nashville built a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, the Greek temple in Athens, as the centerpiece of their Tennessee Centennial Celebration. In 1990, the city added an enormous statue of the Athena, the Greek goddess, within the temple. Nearly 42 feet and covered in eight pounds of gold leaf, Athena is the largest indoor sculpture in the Western hemisphere.
When I first stepped into the building, I grinned in awe, thinking: "They built an enormous pagan temple . . . including a giant golden pagan god . . . in the heart of the Bible Belt!"
Up to last week, asked to name the most glaring example of inadvertent Christian celebration of pantheism, I'd have pointed to Nashville.
But now Wheaton College has seized the laurel, when it suspended political science professor Larycia Hawkins. Not for wearing a hijab headscarf in solidarity with beleaguered Muslim Americans — no, never! Too gross an infringement on personal freedom, even for an administration at a conservative college.
Rather, they suspended her for this statement, posted on Facebook:
That is why Hawkins is suspended until summer, because her statement "seemed inconsistent" with Christian values, and "to give more time to explore theological implications of her recent public statements."
Does Wheaton College really suspect that Christians and Muslims don't "worship the same God?" That perhaps there are two gods, one for Muslims, one for Christians ? Or more: Jews with their God, Hindus with theirs and so on. An Edith Hamilton pantheon of gods.
Okay, that isn't what Wheaton College suspects. They're just another inept college administration bungling employee relations in the most public fashion imaginable and trying to blunder its way out. And we thought the University of Illinois had a monopoly on that.
That second week in December was a frightening time, with Donald Trump urging the United States be sealed off from the contagion of Islam, and the Republican Party rolling like puppies at his feet. It felt like the house was on fire. Hate crimes against Muslims tripled. Hawkins posted her statement on Dec. 10. Two days earlier, I posted the green Muslim star and crescent as my Facebook profile photo, with this explanation: "There comes a time when decent people have to stand up. If Donald Trump is coming for the Muslims, he can sweep me up too."
I was thinking of King Christian X of Denmark. He never did wear the Star of David that the Nazi occupiers forced upon Jews. Danish Jews were never required to wear the star. He did, however, speak out, and write in his diary:
When you look at the inhumane treatment of Jews, not only in Germany but occupied countries as well, you start worrying that such a demand might also be put on us, but we must clearly refuse such, due to their protection under the Danish constitution. I stated that I could not meet such a demand towards Danish citizens. If such a demand is made, we would best meet it by all wearing the Star of David.Wheaton College's actions are the equivalent of some board of rabbis denouncing King Christian X for volunteering to wear the Star of David because, you know, he's not circumcised.
One more irony. The most famous Wheaton College alumnus is the Rev. Billy Graham. The Billy Graham Center is at the heart of the campus. Within it, the Billy Graham Museum, outlining the life of a preacher who rose to fame counseling presidents and holding enormous prayer rallies, while resolutely sitting out the great moral crises of his day, from civil rights to the Vietnam war to gay rights. Obsessing over fine points while missing the big picture. Ignoring the pressing moral imperative of a situation is pure Billy Graham. It never says this anywhere in the museum, but the great lesson — the great tragedy — of Graham's life is that a person can pay lip service to Jesus while steadfastly refusing to put his teachings into practice in the real world. Larycia Hawkins was punished for being Christian, for acting like a Christian toward our Muslim brothers, to the extent that Christianity teaches to care for the oppressed, which — stop the presses — it clearly does.
"Bear one another's burdens," instructs Galatians 6:2. "And so fulfill the law of Christ."
Perhaps while parsing Hawkins' words, Wheaton College can also decide whether the Apostle Paul misspoke.