“The evidence that you are in Christ is the way you treat the one who is not like you – the one who disagrees with you.”
So says the Reverend David Zac Niringiye midway through Linda Midgett’s documentary feature “Same God.” And the man has a point – After all, the entire Christian faith is based on the example of Jesus Christ, a man who embraced the have-nots of society and preached about Good Samaritans.
For centuries, the American Christian church has followed that Biblical example. Early Evangelicals, we’re reminded in “Same God,” were proponents of abolishing slavery and the civil rights movement and the rise of feminism. Wheaton College, one of our country’s foremost Christian universities, once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Fast forward to the mid-2010’s. 81% of evangelical Christians supported the election of Donald Trump – a man who talked of banning Muslims and illegal immigrants, a man who spoke derogatorily of women, a man who would later call racists “very fine people.” And Wheaton College terminated the tenure and employment of their first female African-American professor.
“I think we’re getting angrier, dumber and more ruthless in attacking those with whom we disagree,” the Reverend David Gushee says of Evangelicals in “Same God.” “And all of this feels so far away from the spirit of Jesus that it has me thinking: How does someone who is attempting to remain a faithful Christian actually engage this?”
This is just one of the thoughtful questions asked by Midgett in “Same God.” And if she asks more questions than she answers, “Same God” is still an often thoughtful, challenging and enlightening experience for those on both sides of the political aisle.
Midgett, herself a Wheaton College alumna, focuses her camera on Political Science Professor Larycia Hawkins, the first tenured African-American female professor at the Christian college. Two years after being tenured at Wheaton, Hawkins was fired in the political aftermath of a Facebook post in which she expressed solidarity with Muslims by wearing a hijab and saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
Hawkins says she was not attempting to court controversy but was instead trying to stand up for a group of people that she felt was under attack by then-Presidential-candidate Trump.
“The ones who call for religious freedom for Christians the most are the ones who are willing to abrogate it if you’re a Muslim,” Hawkins says. “When will we (Christians) be subjected to the same kind of rhetoric?”
As you may remember, Hawkins’ Facebook post did not go over well. It sparked outrage in Evangelical culture. Everyone from Franklin Graham to “Christianity Today” condemned the statement. The college’s funders threatened to pull their backing if there wasn’t swift action. And, less than a month after the post, Hawkins was let go.
Midgett wisely doesn’t spend too much time engaging with the central controversy of the post- whether Christians and Muslims do in fact worship the same god. Opinions, as you may imagine, are considerably mixed.
She’s more interested in the ramifications of this small moment- both for Hawkins, who has yet to receive another fulltime teaching job at a university, and for the broader culture as well. What does it mean when a school like Wheaton puts profit and public relations above Christian kindness and engaging intelligently with different belief systems?
Midgett also focuses on the ramifications of one of the story’s more interesting side notes: While Hawkins -an African-American woman- was let go for her comments, Psychology Professor Michael Mangis – a white man who made similar pro-Muslim comments on Facebook- was just given a slap on the wrist.
“It’s not about badness- it’s about blindness,” one of the talking heads says about the unfortunate situation at Wheaton, and Midgett’s film certainly makes that case.
Her Wheaton alumna status makes Midgett the perfect person to tell this story. I doubt other directors would have as much access to the Wheaton College faculty, including intimate and thoughtful interviews with both Hawkins and Mangis, than she does.
It’s a shame that Midgett couldn’t get one-on-one time with the Wheaton provost or president because their opinions would have added a different perspective that is only hinted at here. As it is, Midgett and all the interviewees make it pretty clear they all belong to the Hawkins fan club, and they breeze over other perspectives- both at the school and around the country.
The film’s deep dive into modern theology and politics make it seem even more inaccessible than most documentaries. There is a lot of ground to cover, and much of it is interesting. But “Same God” (not rated, but with some PG-13 language) may also test your patience from time-to-time.
But the talking heads are interesting and charismatic, and the questions the film asks about modern politics, religion, systemic racism and outrage culture are thought-provoking. Like a good college professor – and a good journalist for that matter- Midgett doesn’t spoonfeed answers, but instead encourages her viewers to think for themselves.
“Same God” is a film worth wrestling with, worth discussing and debating because it asks questions that cut deep into the heart of America. These questions matter almost as much as the answers, and the first step toward uniting this divided nation is asking them.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.