The Assault at Wheaton… and the Importance of Interfaith Engagement

By now, I suspect most of my readers have read about an incident involving students at Wheaton College, perhaps the leading evangelical institution of higher learning. As first reported by the Chicago Tribune, five members of Wheaton’s football team assaulted one of their teammates in March 2016. The victim transferred to another school, while the attackers remained at Wheaton and on the team after writing an essay and completing community service. (Warrants have since been issued for the arrest of the players, who have belatedly been suspended from football activities. As of this morning, two of the five have surrendered to police.)

“Campus is pretty shell-shocked,” one Wheaton senior told the Washington Post. Understandably. If true, the reports in the Tribune and Post describe behavior that is absolutely inconsistent with the goals and values of any learning community, especially one that exists “For Christ and His Kingdom.”

Wheaton's logo: "For Christ and His Kingdom"
Licensed by Creative Commons (Christoffer Lukas Müller)

The assault is disturbing in and of itself. And the fact that it was committed by football players should revive ongoing conversations about hazing in college athletics and the relationship of football in particular to higher education. (Again, particularly in Christian settings.) But there was one other aspect of the Tribune article that drew significant attention:

The freshman told investigators that he was placed in the back seat of a teammate’s vehicle and held down by at least two players while others piled into the vehicle. After the vehicle began moving, the players played Middle Eastern music and made offensive comments about Muslims, according to the victim’s account.

At one point, the players suggested to the freshman that he had been kidnapped by Muslims who wanted to fornicate with goats, the teen told investigators. They patted his foot and suggested he would be their “goat” for the evening, the records said.

The freshman told investigators that his teammates restrained him with more duct tape during the drive, pulled down his shorts and underwear, then repeatedly tried to insert an object into his rectum. After the freshman yelled at them to stop, he was beaten, he said.

I’ve no doubt there’s more to this story. But even if it’s only coincidence, it’s hard not to miss that an assault allegedly involving “offensive comments about Muslims” took place just a month after Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins announced she would not return to teach. (As you may recall, Hawkins had been suspended after suggesting that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, an administrative decision that sparked fierce debate on campus and well beyond it.)

But that aspect of the Wheaton football story also reminded me of a major new survey published this summer by the Pew Research Center. In it, 75% of Muslims in America who were surveyed agreed that there is “a lot of discrimination” against them. 62% did not think that the American people see Islam “as part of mainstream society.” That’s considerably higher than the 50% of all Americans who agree with that statement…

…but lower than the 67% of white evangelicals who endorse it. Such Christians are also much more likely than the general population to agree that:

  • “Islam encourages violence more than other faiths” (63% of evangelicals say yes, 41% overall)
  • “There is a great deal or fair amount of extremism among U.S. Muslims” (56% vs. 35%)
  • “There is natural conflict between Islam and democracy” (72% vs. 44%)

And a significant minority of that group believes that the majority of U.S. Muslims are anti-American (38% of white evangelicals vs. 25% of the larger American population).

Larson & Shady, From Bubble to BridgeSo between that survey’s findings about evangelical views of Muslims and the inevitable revival of questions surrounding Islam and an evangelical flagship school like Wheaton, now seems like a good time for me to remind people of From Bubble to Bridge, the InterVarsity Press book in which my Bethel University colleagues Marion Larson and Sara Shady make an evangelical Christian case for interfaith engagement:

The premise of this book is that Christians who seek to live and serve graciously in a religiously diverse world must also deliberately and thoughtfully engage with our religious neighbors. We firmly believe that not only is such engagement in line with God’s command that we love all of our neighbors, including those who believe differently; it also helps us to develop a mature, committed faith that’s at the same time humble and open to learning from others. (3)

Sara and Marion argue first that interfaith engagement is a civic imperative for a religiously plural society. But in ch. 2, they add that it is a religious imperative for American Christians who are commanded to love their neighbors as themselves… but whose “track record isn’t so great when it comes to our treatment of religious neighbors” (37).

“Imagine,” they continue, “how welcoming and restorative it can be for religious neighbors to be treated with respect by the Christians they encounter, to have these Christians treat them as if their spiritual lives are genuine and meaningful—and that this is a part of them from which Christians can learn” (40). But this is only part of the imperative: “Loving our religious neighbors goes beyond our personal interactions with them. Hospitality also implies a responsibility to support religious others at the social and political level, and an important way to provide such support is to fight religious prejudice” (46).

So as the latest controversy at Wheaton continues to develop, I hope those of us in Christian higher ed will seize the opportunity to repent of our own failures to love our Muslim and other neighbors and to find new ways “to include interfaith service and dialogue on and off campus as an important aspect of education and spiritual development” (5).

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