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“Peace, Peace”: Belated Reflections on a Dubious Reconciliation

Foreword

This past February, the prolonged controversy between Wheaton College and Dr. Larycia Hawkins reached its formal conclusion. The end of the months-long controversy was marked by a series of significant events. Over the course of a whirlwind week, the Provost released a very public “apology” that derailed Dr. Hawkins’s review by a committee of her peers; the College announced that Dr. Hawkins would not be returning; the President announced that a so-called “reconciliation service” would be held; and the Chaplain presided over the service. It was shortly after these events that I penned the following piece, entitled “‘Peace, Peace’: Reflections on a Dubious Reconciliation.”

For a long time, I refrained from publishing the piece because of doubts over its enduring importance. It seemed that the discussion about the controversy that led to Dr. Hawkins’ effective removal from Wheaton College had faded into the background, or, at the very least, out of the public eye. At any rate, none of what I had to say could have changed the material situation. Dr. Hawkins was gone from Wheaton College, and she wasn’t coming back.

But what I came to discover was that, if the controversy and its fallout have disappeared from the international news and the Twittersphere, its effects are still deeply felt by many faculty, staff, students, alumni, and administrators of the college. It is a topic of regular conversation among both those who supported Dr. Hawkins and among those who bid her good riddance. A troubling but perhaps unsurprising picture emerges: the Wheaton community remains deeply fractured. Mistrust perdures. Indignation breeds. Questions persist. And the “reconciliation” that was presumptuously touted by the people who prosecuted Dr. Hawkins is woefully distant. Over time, the thoughts that I had written months ago took on new meaning and importance.

I publish them now, not only because I find that the wounds of last year’s schism are fresh, and that people still care, but, more importantly, because we are on the brink of a reopening of the conversation. The Task Force set up to “investigate” the controversy has completed its work, and its report is soon to come. No one has a perfect picture of what exactly the Task Force has spent its time investigating, but it’s important that we be ready and willing to scrutinize the report when it is released. The conversation will–and must–reopen, and I hope that my reflections from February will facilitate it when it does.

Two of my earliest concerns remain:

First, I am convinced that, unless the Task Force Report addresses what I below call the “essential questions”—most importantly, WHY the controversy happened at all—it will be mostly pointless. If the Task Force sticks to incidental questions about how this or that document got “leaked,” or how the process in place for dealing with these situations was ill-suited, but fails to interrogate the inconsistencies in the administration’s insistence that the controversy was fundamentally rooted in theological concerns, and that they always dealt fairly with Dr. Hawkins, then Wheaton College will be no closer to “reconciliation” than when the Task Force was commissioned. Instead, the conversation will only appear to progress while the administration’s actions are pushed further into the shadows.

Second, and related, is that one result of the Task Force report may be the prosecution of certain faculty and staff members for making the administration “look bad.” This usually took the banal form of simply pointing out the administration’s own asinine behavior and deceptive doublespeak. Professors named in a Time article questioning the administration’s warrant; members of the Faculty Diversity Committee that named and shamed the administration’s discriminatory behavior towards Dr. Hawkins; one professor in particular who published private correspondence between himself and the provost. These brave women and men exposed the administration’s duplicity, inconsistency, and discriminatory behavior and thereby challenged their exclusive claim to truth, to having “all the facts,” to acting responsibly and Christianly. They were willing to put a question mark over the behavior of their superiors when they didn’t know what the consequences would be. If a product of the report is a large scale punishing of dissenters—punishment which has already begun to be meted out in the curious case of Michael Mangis—then it will suggest that the purpose of the Task Force was always counterinsurgency before it was reconciliation.

“Error must clothe itself in truth to have power.” The great risk of the Task Force and its report is that of being an apparently objective resolution that nevertheless neglects the most important questions. We can no longer afford deluding ourselves into thinking that the matter is over and done with, that all that is left is to let time do its healing work. Nonsense. Until the most fundamental questions about Wheaton College’s prosecution of Dr. Larycia Hawkins are answered, “reconciliation” cannot and will not come to Wheaton College.


“Peace, Peace”: Reflections on a Dubious Reconciliation

Worship preceded or followed by evil acts becomes an absurdity. The holy place is doomed when people indulge in unholy deeds.
-Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, p. 13

From the prophet even to the priest
Everyone deals falsely.
They have healed the brokenness of my people superficially,
Saying, “Peace, peace,”
But there is no peace.
-Jeremiah 6:13-14

It is finished. The whirlwind of events that began in December has come to an end. Dr. Hawkins will not be returning to Wheaton College.

The controversy began in dramatic fashion, and its “resolution” was equally dramatic. First came an email from Provost Jones saying that he had repealed the notice of termination against Dr. Hawkins. Then came the stupefying announcement that Dr. Hawkins would not, in fact, be reinstated. Finally, to top it all off, came the so-called “reconciliation service.”

The following is a critical reflection on these events, with particular focus on the so-called “reconciliation service” and the concept of reconciliation. I find that the use of the term “reconciliation” is inappropriate, disingenuous, and a grave spiritual error. What we have on our hands is a textbook case of biblical hypocrisy and false prophecy: the use of religious ritual to cover up iniquity. Until Wheaton College admits as a community that Dr. Hawkins has been seriously wronged, then the reconciliation for which we rightfully long will be no more than a wishful dream.

The events leading up to the resolution of the controversy are worth reviewing in detail. The road to the “reconciliation service” began with Dr. Jones’s email to the Faculty on the evening of Saturday, February 6th. It read in part:

I acknowledged our shared desire to seek reconciliation and resolution… I apologized for my lack of wisdom and collegiality as I initially approached Dr. Hawkins, and for imposing an administrative leave more precipitously than was necessary. Additionally, I expressed my regret for not explaining to her that the administration believed a public response to the situation was necessary and not giving her adequate notice of that announcement.

Many were optimistic about Dr. Jones’s email. At the very least, this was possibly the auspicious precursor to more good news. At the same time, a close look at the email gives the reader reason for pause. While it must be acknowledged that it took courage and humility for Dr. Jones to write this email (or at least to agree to having his name associated with it), the apologetic nature of the email is burdened, almost spoiled, by the abundance of qualifications. The apology is confined to an infinitesimally restricted scope. It apologizes for “the ways [Dr. Jones] contributed to the fracture” of Dr. Hawkins’s relationships with him and the College. Beyond that, the email actually defends certain actions of the administration: it only apologizes for not informing Dr. Hawkins that the College would make her administrative leave public (thus initiating the media’s involvement), not for publishing a private personnel matter in the first place. Nor is any reason given for why the administration felt this a necessary course of action. As for the administrative leave itself, an apology is only given for imposing it “more precipitously than was necessary”; no apology for issuing the leave in the first place. Perhaps most alarmingly, the email released to the College community makes absolutely no mention of the College’s history of targeting Dr. Hawkins, or the Faculty Diversity Committee’s fresh charge of racial, gender, and (to a lesser extent) marital status discrimination. Some will find this an uncharitably scrutinizing treatment of a Christian apology (“He apologized, what more do you want?”). But I am not asking that the Provost “self-immolate on Blanchard Lawn,” as one Wheaton professor intoned, caricaturing skeptics of the email. I am asking that any would-be apology penetrate to the heart of the matter–the why it happened, not how–before being celebrated as the beginning of a process of reconciliation.

Despite these significant concerns, it was right to postpone criticism. After all, perhaps this would eventually lead to the administration giving a less qualified and more penetrating apology. Even those of us who had been most critical of the administration breathed an alloyed sigh of hope, reservation, relief, and even joy. In any case, it was possible to allay suspicion for two hours.

But when those two hours expired, our sigh became a gasp. Before the tears of joy had even dried, the College had announced that Dr. Hawkins would not be returning. “Wheaton College and Associate Professor of Political Science Dr. Larycia Hawkins announce they have come together and found a mutual place of resolution and reconciliation,” the statement on the College website read. “The College and Dr. Hawkins have reached a confidential agreement under which they will part ways.”

We hardly had time to recover from the shock when another email was sent out, this time from President Ryken. Here at the close of what he euphemistically referred to as “a process that could have led to [Dr. Hawkins’s] termination,” the President offered some pastoral direction for the community:

This is a time for prayer, lament, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is also a time for worship. All faculty, staff, and students are invited to a reconciliation service in Edman Chapel at 8pm on Tuesday, February 9… Please join me in praying that the worship service will be a tangible step towards the healing of our campus.

The College’s announcement and Ryken’s email were a blistering one-two punch to those of us who had hoped, prayed, and petitioned for Dr. Hawkins’s return to Wheaton College. This may have been a “resolution,” but there was a great deal left unresolved. Questions abounded: What had happened between February 2 and 6 that led to this resolution rather than another one? What was the backroom deal that was brokered, and why must it remain confidential? And of utmost importance: was the “reconciliation” that the final settlement spoke of bona fide or bogus?

Perhaps the sharpest way to put this last question is to personalize it: If Dr. Hawkins were to describe the final settlement, would she have used the word “reconciliation”? Where did this word “reconciliation” come from? Was it appropriate, or was it appropriate-ed? The College’s statement maintained that neither party would be speaking to the press until the following Wednesday, and yet they had taken this opportunity to preemptively inject the word “reconciliation” into all subsequent discourse about the settlement. Whether we liked it or not, Wheaton College and Dr. Ryken were effectively dictating the terms of the conversation.

The question remained open as to whether “reconciliation” had been achieved, or only simulated. Severe doubts accumulated as to the suitability of calling the final settlement “reconciliation.” Furthermore, doubts were raised about the propriety of holding a “reconciliation service” in light of all of the loose ends and unanswered questions, as well as the bare fact that Dr. Hawkins would not be returning (as my friend Aaron Dorsey put it, “Which one of us would desire a reconciliation with God in which we ‘part ways’ at the end?”). At a point when many of us found it difficult, if not impossible, to trust the leadership of the College, we were asked to take it on credit from Ryken that this was “a time for worship.”

Ideas were tossed around by the erstwhile #ReinstateDocHawk Movement. Should the service be attended, or protested? Even more members of the community wondered whether they should take part in the Lord’s Supper. To answer mounting concerns, Chaplain Blackmon (who would preside at the service) sent an email to the College community in which he defended the propriety of celebrating the Lord’s Supper as “a visible sign and pledge” of unity while leaving space without condemnation for those who planned not to share in the table “[f]or reasons of conscience, a commitment to ongoing reconciliation or a need for heart-felt repentance.” He also qualified (even if he didn’t clarify) the overall purpose of the service: “The service is not in any way intended to be a celebration, a religious sanction of all that has transpired, nor is it intended to be a final act of reconciliation. Our aim is much more modest tonight: we will gather as a community of believers because the Father, Son and Holy Spirit welcome our prayers, petitions and laments into their very presence. We come together in worship because God promises to nourish, sustain and comfort us.”

Therein lies the prophetic challenge. Does the Triune God “welcome” our prayers, even in times of unrepentant injustice? Does He “promise” to “nourish, sustain, and comfort us,” even when we trample upon His command to champion the dignity of the vulnerable, to deal honestly and fairly with others, to love and learn and do justice? Or do these sentiments bely a snare, a religious temptation to presume on God’s favor? We are reminded of the words of Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel in his magisterial study of the prophets of Israel:

The prophet disdains those for whom God’s presence is comfort and security; to him it is a challenge, an incessant demand. God is compassion, not compromise; justice, though not inclemency. The prophet’s predictions can always be proved wrong by a change in man’s conduct, but never the certainty that God is full of compassion…. The prophet knew that religion could distort what the Lord demanded of [humanity], that priests themselves had committed perjury by bearing false witness, condoning violence, tolerating hatred, calling for ceremonies instead of bursting forth with wrath and indignation at cruelty, deceit, idolatry, and violence…. Worship preceded or followed by evil acts becomes an absurdity. The holy place is doomed when people indulge in unholy deeds.

Whether or not he realized it, Chaplain Blackmon explained and justified the “reconciliation service” using the trademark sentiments of false prophecy: assurances of divine comfort and attention to our prayers with minimal regard for the moral state of the community and its leadership. That does not mean that Blackmon is immoral or apostate or wicked or malevolent.  Malice is not a prerequisite for false prophecy. It only means that he, like all religious folk (myself included) are susceptible to presuming upon the grace of God and forgetting the freedom of God. God is not beholden to us, refuses to be instrumentalized or wielded by us to underwrite our religious agendas. It may be, in times of unrepentant injustice, that the Lord will say to us, “I will turn My hand against you” (Isa. 1:25), even while God “waits to be gracious to you” (30:18). God may be “for” us, we may stand under the divine Yes; but that for-ness must include being against our idolatry and presumption, that Yes to us as children must be preceded by a No to us as rebels. “God is for us” is an article of faith; “God is on our side” is the rallying cry of the false prophet. This is the temptation particular to the people of God, to the “religious” as opposed to the “irreligious”: equating election with exceptionalism, using chosenness to trump unrighteousness.

The prophets inveigh against ritualism, not ritual. They protest, not because religious rituals are fundamentally misguided, but because they cannot stand in for what God truly requires of His people. “And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). When the community is under judgment, invoking God’s compassion is not enough; may, in fact, be profane. The prophets demand repentance–the confession of and turning away from evil deeds, and the turning towards justice.

Dr. Jones had spearheaded the administration’s contrition with his equivocal apology, but as I have argued, there was more left to be answered for. And so the question pressed going into the reconciliation service: would there be a great and necessary airing-out on the part of the administration? Would there be a more penetrating apology, one that moved beyond the incidentals of the controversy into its essence? One that moved beyond “concerns over process” to concerns over motive? One that moved beyond how the controversy unfolded to why it happened in the first place?

Chaplain Blackmon warned us not to consider the service “a final act of reconciliation,” and President Ryken hoped that the service would be “a tangible step towards the healing of our campus.” And while I don’t disagree that it will be a long row to hoe before the Wheaton College community approaches anything resembling reconciliation, I fail to see how the so-called “reconciliation service” was even supposed to contribute to that process. In order for reconciliation to begin to take place, these more fundamental questions would have to be answered. But that is precisely what did not happen at the service. The fundamental questions were evaded, the controversy treated in the most general terms possible. Awkwardly, Ryken and Blackmon treated the whole ordeal like an unfortunate but perhaps inevitable tragedy, like an unexpected death or a natural disaster. But this is not the hapless woe that we know from a heart attack or a hurricane. The whole ordeal is the product of human agency, not a stroke of misfortune. It came about as the result of concrete decisions on the part of the administration, against the supplications of many of the faculty, students, and staff. It could have been avoided; instead, it was sought. It happened, and it didn’t have to.

“Clarion calls for Christian unity which do not take into account the deep causes of present conditions and the real prerequisites for building a just society are merely escapist,” writes the Peruvian Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutierrez. This is what renders Ryken and Blackmon’s words at the service so cringeworthy. They nodded at the community’s disunity without addressing its “deep causes.” And this oversight led them to execute an embarrassing array of non-sequiturs: Ryken managed to talk about “sin” without reference to any sins. He managed to talk about the Crucified without talking about the crucifiers. Blackmon managed to talk about “the night Jesus was betrayed” without any mention of the one who betrayed him.

All this, in contrast to the deeply (and literally) prophetic words of Dr. Hawkins. For my money, Dr. Hawkins’s choice of text for the service alone ought to put the lie to any notion that the clandestine agreement reached between Wheaton College and herself can be properly termed “reconciliation.” In case you missed it, Dr. Hawkins read from that paragon of prophetism, Isaiah 1:10-26. In the passage, the Lord addresses His people as the “people of Gomorrah,” their leadership as the “rulers of Sodom,” a people under judgment for their profane blend of wickedness and religious presumption. The offerings are worthless, the incense an abomination, the festivals and feasts objects of divine scorn. The Lord will neither see nor hear his own people because of their iniquity: “So when you spread out your hands in prayer, / I will hide My eyes from you; / Yes, even though you multiply prayers, / I will not listen. / Your hands are covered with blood” (v. 15). Where has justice gone? Where has concern for the vulnerable of society gone? The people face judgment by sword, by fire, by the fierce anger of the Lord, and religious ceremony will not save. Only repentance will (v. 27).

The text is a scathing condemnation of the blasphemous attempt to disguise iniquity through religious ritual. Are we really to suppose, as some have suggested, that Dr. Hawkins taking part in the eucharist is a sign of her approbation of the final settlement? Or was it a final farewell, one last address to the students she labored to lead and serve, a willing compromise to put an end to the abuse she suffered?

In light of the foregoing, I submit that the so-called “reconciliation service,” and the events leading up to it, amount to a sustained and shameful abuse of the term “reconciliation” on the part of the Wheaton College administration. Like the false prophets of old, they have healed the brokenness of God’s people superficially, crying, “Peace, peace!” when there is no peace. They failed to furnish the necessary and robust confession demanded for true reconciliation to take place—or even begin to take place—and are thus rendered guilty of a profane and presumptuous ritualism. Furthermore, they become the object of the Isaianic condemnation that Dr. Hawkins shared with us: cease your religious rituals, and instead “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

 


An Afterword

Since February, my conviction has remained that reconciliation not only remains a long way off, but that Wheaton College as an institution has not even begun the journey. The “reconciliation service” was purportedly the “first step”; where are the other steps? Let me be clear: the commissioning of the Task Force is not inherently constructive. Neither was it necessary. If Wheaton College, its trustees and its leaders, wanted to achieve reconciliation with Dr. Hawkins, they did not need a Task Force. They could have taken ownership and responsibility for an entirely needless controversy, and apologized—not for the way that it happened, but that it happened at all. Had they done that back in February, they would have gotten more than reconciliation; they would have gotten revival. The opportunity was there then, and it is here now. Will they take it?

There is a terrifying episode in the book of Hosea, when Israel’s God responds to her apostasy and distress, not with deliverance, but with devastation and desertion. “I will be like a lion to Ephraim,” He says, “and like a young lion to Judah. I, even I, will tear to pieces and go away, I will carry away and there will be none to deliver. I will go away,” warns the Lord, “Until they acknowledge their guilt and seek My face; in their affliction they will earnestly seek me.”

What was true in February remains true today: God is not fooled by platitudinous appeals to His compassion. But His promise to honor repentance is sure: “a broken and contrite heart He will not despise.” It is my fervent hope for Wheaton College—a community to which I myself belong—that there will be a true repentance unto healing. Not a vague sense of communal affliction; not a collection of “people on both sides” bemoaning their disagreement with one another; but an explicit ownership of responsibility on the part of the spiritual leaders responsible for the controversy in the first place.

Hosea does not end on a note of condemnation, but of fierce hope. I make his cry my own: “Come, let us return to the LORD. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bind us up.”

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About the Author

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A Bible student by training, a photographer by trade, a thinker by design and an idealist by choice, Stephen is an alumnus of Wheaton College, Class of 2015. He usually only listens to two albums at a time and unwinds by watching famous chess matches on YouTube. He doesn't like sermons whose main point is lexical, when there's more burger than bun, or weak-ass hand dryers.

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