Sunday, February 21, 2021

What do wolves look like? : Reeling from Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias died in May 2020 and at that time was broadly lauded as a champion of the Christian gospel. In his life he founded RZIM, an international organisation with million dollar budgets in several countries, and personally authored or co-authored thirty-three books. He travelled in the circles of the most influential evangelical Christians whose eulogies assured their audiences he was now with his Lord and Saviour in heaven. Mike Pence, then Vice President of the United States heaped praise on him at his memorial service.  

These accolades came despite allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by Ravi Zacharias. RZIM officially dismissed those allegations as being baseless attempts to tear down a man of God. A few dissented from this conclusion but they were in the minority. I myself, while having a low opinion of Ravi Zacharias as a writer and thinker, reserved judgement about whether he was an abuser.

Post his death there has been a full independent enquiry and it has revealed that not only did Ravi commit the few abuses he was suspected of, but that he systematically preyed on young vulnerable women.  The full report is well worth a read in order to grasp the magnitude of his actions. 

Evangelical Christians are well aware of this issue and within evangelical Christianity there are already a range of voices debating the implications of this. I am pleased to see that a number of evangelical commentators are taking this very seriously. In some cases labelling it unprecedented in “scale, scope, breadth, depth, persistence, and complexity” and calling for nothing less than a total honest facing of a pattern of abuse that we do not know the extent of.  

To give some idea of this extent, there were 200 different spa contacts, across the US and Asia, part of a network owned in indirect, convoluted ways by Ravi, that Ravi Zaccharias had in his phone. Sites in the US have been revealed as where Ravi conducted his abuse and none of the Asian Spa contacts have been independently interviewed yet about whether the abuse occurred there. Ravi’s manipulation and control over the young women who worked there used money donated to his organisation for charitable purposes in a global operation of abuse. After making women financially dependant on him, he used blatant spiritual abuse to weaken their resolve to escape or report against him.  He used confidences gained in his role as a Christian leader to build trust and render his victims vulnerable. He raped at least one woman and afterwards prayed with her to thank God for what they had done.

Perhaps unsuprisingly Martin Illes from the Australian Christian Lobby is among those who have missed the point. He makes a 9 minute statement on the matter after spending 23 minutes lambasting Dan Andrews. In his statement, Marin Illes describes Ravi’s behaviour as simply the outworking of the human heart, a heart bent on deception, and that looking at his behaviour as anything we are incapable of ourselves is foolish. Furthermore according to Martin we should be careful not to judge because we too have “sinners hearts”.  This should not be read as humility but a red flag to Martin’s followers. Ravi was a systematic and repeatedly unrepentant manipulator of the vulnerable who showed a pathological disinterest in the suffering of his victims. He crushed in the public sphere those who challenged him on this in his life and then continued to offend. If you do not think this is extraordinary for a Christian leader and you are in Christian leadership you should immediately step down and seek help.

I have read commentary that is even more disturbing, implying that Ravi was himself a victim of temptation. Some have gone so far as to still suggest that Ravi is being falsely accused. I don’t think these comments reflect the majority of those who were once Ravi fans. I think the dominant tone is one of betrayal sometimes blunted by the Martin Illes of the world and sometimes more unconditionally expressed. When Archbishop Pell was initially charged and later convicted for sexual abuse, only to have that conviction overturned by a higher court, there were Catholics who said his trials were just an attack on the church by those who would always hate the church. They were not reflective of the majority of Catholics I know, who can tell you the moment in the whole process they decided Archbishop Pell was suss. I estimate feelings here to be similar for evangelical Christians as a whole, as much as these two situations are comparable.

Are they comparable? Evangelical Christianity is not formally organised like the Catholic Church. It is harder to say what position of trust and authority Ravi Zacharias held than it is to state George Pells official status and thus harder to infer the meaning of his deciet. There are after all numerous independent evangelical churches. It is possible for evangelicals in one church to compartmentalise Ravi’s abuse as his own churches problem. But again this doesn’t seem to be what prominent voices on sites like the Gospel Coalition are doing. 

The reason for this is that Ravi was very much part of their evangelical tribe. By contrast Hillsong church is headed by Brian Houston who covered up his fathers abuse of children and Hillsong has recently had to sack Carl Lentz , its senior New York pastor for having multiple affairs but Hillsong is closer to the Pentecostal and even prosperity theology churches than the reformed sort of evangelicalism that the Gospel Coalition speaks from. To simplify, Hillsong is feeling-based spirituality which a respectable reformed evangelical knows not to trust. (Baptists are not historically part of the reformed tradition). Ravi was reason and argument which reformed evangelicals expect to be more reliable. He was logic and evidence. And he was a manipulative, fraud and serial abuser. That is a much bigger blow.

Time will tell whether Ravi Zacharias’ betrayal of trust will have any substantial effect and what that effect will be. I was pleased to see a Gospel Coalition article that pointed away from the Billy Graham rule as a solution. This rule, made somewhat famous outside the church by Mike Pence, suggests that a male church leader should never be alone with a woman other than their wife. This is a solution that only serves to entrench male only leadership because it is never enacted in a way that obliges men to step down or away from anything. Ravi Zacharias himself claimed to follow this rule and although this is now known to be just another lie it can be seen that invoking this rule offers no institutional protection.

For those of us more outside the church I wonder what we will take from this incident. I already do not trust a certain type of religious man who gravitates to positions of teaching authority. I have seen how on a local level they can make their churches accommodate their sensitivities without any explicit instruction as if they were children with the loudest tantrum. I am wary when, as authors, their names become more and more prominent on their book covers or their wives and children feature prominently in their bio as if part of their resume.  I don’t trust how they construct expert panels of likeminded peers. I am alert to when they put on a pastoral veneer and sit uncomfortably close to potential critics in order to counsel them. I anticipate how that veneer will slip and reveal a spiteful anger if they are challenged. I have spent a fair amount of time around evangelical churches and Ravi Zacharias is not a surprise. 

To say I don’t trust male religious celebrities or those who aspire to be one, is still to stop short of expecting betrayal from them. I was genuine when I said I reserved judgement at Ravi’s death about whether abuse allegations against him were true. My attitude to these people has been they may be good or bad and time will tell; When they are both conservative and certain, I am inclined to think they are uncritical thinkers, but I haven’t assumed that they will be abusive of their power. 

Ravi’s abuse, the cover-ups at Hillsong, all the global scandals of the Catholic church, the Mars Hill toxic culture, and on and on, however, cannot help but have an effect on me. I suspect I am starting to expect this kind of scandal from prominent religious authority figures especially whenever they are treated as anointed prophets like Ravi Zacharias was. I suspect I am making the same assumptions about people who act in a similar way in the smaller ponds of local churches too. That's not the genuinely humble and hardworking ministers I know who would probably blush at any thanks for their work but those who already have reputations they need others to be mindful of, as they are likely to be "going places". At some point it is hard to feel any shock when such stars end up catastrophically failing our trust. At some point it becomes natural to err in the direction of assuming the worst. We are way past fool me once territory here.


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