When Your Former Bible Professor Is Accused of Rape
It hasn’t been a good year to have idols of any kind.
Many of our favorite comedians, actors, directors, and athletes have been accused of sexual harassment if not assault — and it’s no surprise that some of the perpetrators will come out of the church. Of course, this was the basis for #churchtoo.
When a Facebook friend posted a link that said a faculty member from my own Christian college was accused of rape and battery, I wish I could say I was shocked. Unfortunately, the link between subtle sexism and outright violence against women is clear both inside and outside church. The patriarchal norms in church culture only make it worse.
The accused, John Wright, was my Old Testament professor and also pastor of an well-known church in a lower-income region of San Diego that had a reputation for serving the community. I enjoyed his class. His son was a classmate. His wife was also a pastor.
I will share the immediate feelings I have in the wake of this news, as I grieve for the survivor*, and for the school and San Diego communities disillusioned by this leader’s utter failure.
I’m Angry That Some People Don’t Get It
The post I first saw on Facebook came with a comment. Someone I don’t know personally wrote that the woman accusing Wright had been in a consensual relationship with him, but once she found out Wright wouldn’t leave his wife for her, she started calling it rape.
But, consider the timeline: The woman was first Wright’s student, then he invited her to his church, and when learning about her past abuse, offered to counsel her, which led to a sexual relationship he referred to as “sexual healing” for her past trauma. Meanwhile, she’s hearing from all other Christian authorities including her school that premarital sex is a sin, that sex bonds two people together, and thus sex is a lifelong commitment. Is it any surprise that in trying to come to terms with the sexual relationship that she volleyed between thinking the whole thing was weird and wondering if he would leave his wife for her?
Wright was this woman’s college professor and later pastor — he had authority over her in multiple ways. Can she truly consent to a relationship in this power structure?
A person in jail cannot legally consent. A person who is drunk cannot consent. I would argue that an individual in a pastoral or therapeutic relationship cannot truly consent. No matter how powerful the person is in other venues of life, in that relationship, he or she is at a disadvantage.
When I was in college, I thought pastors were nearly infallible. In fact, it was only after working at a church and having a disagreement with a pastor that I realized pastors don’t have some special direct line to God.
I Question If There Were Signs
Whenever something bad happens, it’s human nature to imagine you could have known and could have prevented it. Wright was a great teacher and a progressive Christian who was instrumental in my own journey away from fundamentalist Christian theology.
He had a reputation for throwing chairs in his class, although he never did this in my class. He once joked, hilariously, that Bible classes should have labs the way science classes do … but that it would get messy with all the sex and sacrifice in the Old Testament. When asked about his disagreement with another professor on a topic, he responded, “Yes, we have different opinions on that. The difference is, I’m right.” Sure, a little arrogant, but that hardly tips him off as a sexual predator.
Wright was kind and intelligent, and easy to trust. But, no, myself and others could not have prevented the harm that came to the woman who is now accusing him.
Now, she is bravely protecting others from harm by speaking about it.
I’m Glad My School Suspended Him … For Now
There are countless stories of churches enabling and covering for abusive pastors. Both Wright’s church and my school have taken Wright’s name off of websites. The school hired a third party to conduct an investigation, and has suspended him. Some of my classmates, in the comments of a school newspaper article, say suspension isn’t enough.
But immediately firing someone based on an accusation, as convincing as it is, fuels the myth that people can make false accusations and ruin careers. The best way to enable future survivors to tell their stories is by following through with a full investigation before making final decisions. The school’s response further clarifies its actions thus far.
Time will tell how the Nazarene church, with which both the school and Wright’s church are affiliated, deals with this moving forward.
Hopefully, the Nazarene church sets the new standard for how to responsibly and respectfully deal with sexual abuse in a religious context.
*Note: While the survivor has identified herself in news coverage in order to bring awareness to this story, I have chosen to leave her name out of this story to avoid revictimization.