On Ravi Zacharias: “We’re all sinners” is not the first response

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Now is not the time to be saying “let’s not forget, we’re all sinners who need Jesus.”

If you follow the world of famous Christian speakers and writers, you already know the terrible news about Ravi Zacharias. I haven’t made use of his work here at Right Reason before, but that’s only because it was popular level work rather than scholarly work, and I often didn’t agree with his arguments. But in light of the terrible things we now know about his predatory behaviour, that’s neither here nor there.

People are going to be commenting on this for a long time, and there are ways of doing so that are potentially helpful, and ways that aren’t.

Following an investigation they commissioned, the ministry that bears his name, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), has issued a forthright statement about what has happened, and have, ostensibly, publicly repented for their previous defence of Ravi, a defence that was based on their trust of a man who deceived them. They enabled his abusive behaviour and fought off pressing questions, and as a result, Ravi’s victims suffered more, and multiplied in number. It is a shame that the board is anonymous, since this anonymity creates an almost total barrier between them and public accountability. That some people-we-know-not-who are sorry for what they did and failed to do is not repentance. A report of the findings of that investigation is now public, and as the report indicates, it was limited in scope. Few could believe that the examples discussed here are the whole story. The things that have come to light are awful, and they stray beyond what people might expect are the “typical” sins of a man with money, power, and a platform, namely having illicit relationships, which of course would be an issue in its own right. Ravi did not simply have partners in crime. He had victims. What we now know extends to habitual sexual assault. Exploiting numerous non-consenting women. Rape. Using ministry funds to pay women, plying them into intimacy they did not want. Publicly smearing people who brought inappropriate behaviour to light. Manipulation, threatening suicide, should his conduct be revealed.

In general, I have been heartened by the (online) responses from other Christian speakers and authors, organisations, and people on social media. There have been, first and foremost, open expressions of grief and dismay, along with sympathy for the women Ravi abused. People have wondered how RZIM can continue to operate. Occasionally, just occasionally, you’ll hear a voice of denial. “Allegations.” “Extortion.” “Accusing a man who cannot defend himself.” To a very small extent, this may be understandable, at least from a psychological point of view. People loved and looked up to Ravi, and it is very hard for them to believe what has come to light, to the point where they will simply distort obvious facts. For example, these are not allegations that began after his death. There were allegations well before his death, and Ravi falsely denied them and blamed the other parties, in spite of some fairly damning evidence against him. These denials were part of a wider pattern of dishonesty, as seen in the matter of Ravi exaggerating his professional / academic credentials. Although the sorts of denials we are now seeing are disappointing, it is encouraging to see that they are rare, and when they are made, they are immediately confronted.

What is more common than denial, however, is a sort of gentle acknowledgement of these terrible deeds. It is an acceptance that they happened, but the first and main response is “this is a reminder that we are all sinners,” or “even great men like King David sinned.” These statements are true, of course, and there is a place for them here. We need not even engage, just now, in correcting the comparison with King David, who as far as we know did not habitually abuse women, and who repented and turned from his actions when he was accused, rather than trying to shame victims and hurt the reputation of others. Whatever truth these statements contain, to put them at the forefront of our public response is a mistake.

“But I am a sinner too,” or “this reminds us that we all need Jesus,” or “even great people do terrible things” are the sorts of statements that present this issue as being all about how stained Ravi’s soul is compared to yours or mine. And that is not what this issue is all about. Suppose a woman confided in you that your friend had raped and abused her over a period of some time. She didn’t think anyone else would believe her. People called her a liar, an attention seeker, a greedy bitch trying to extort money from a good man. Your friend is a powerful, influential fellow who enjoys the respect of many. This woman now confides in you, and shows you proof that she is telling the truth. All room for doubt is gone. You know she is telling the truth. Now imagine responding to her with “Well, we’re all sinners. We all need Jesus. I’m not perfect either. Good people in the Bible did bad things sometimes, just look at King David.” You’re talking about nobody but your friend (and yourself). But do you even realise what’s happening here? For some time now she has lived with what was done to her. This guy raped and abused her, and nobody would listen to her. Now that you’ve discovered she was telling the truth, you’re turning your attention away from that fact and by all appearances trying to soften the blow for your friend, the abuser.

Right now, [the victims] are out there watching as the world talks about what was done to them.

We’ve just found out that there is a whole string of women Ravi abused. They’re not dead, they’ve come forward, and they are telling the truth. In at least some cases their name was dragged through the mud previously. Who knows who they might have spoken with privately, but for one reason or another they didn’t feel able to come forward publicly. Right now, they are out there watching as the world talks about what was done to them. What are they hearing? Now is not the time to focus your whole response on the fact that nobody is perfect, and “there but by the grace of God go I,” so we mustn’t be too harsh with the abuser. Comparing yourself to the abuser, or comparing both you and the abuser to the standard of perfection seriously misses the mark. Perhaps, rather than blatant denial, this is your own way of being unwilling to squarely face what has happened. Perhaps “nobody’s perfect, we all need forgiveness” is a way of not having to directly accept that this particular man who you regard as being on your side has done these shocking things to these victims.

When you make your whole response into some navel-gazing exercise about whether or not you’re better or worse than Ravi … you’re leaving the victims standing there like you don’t care what happened to them.

Never mind the fact that we don’t all habitually sexually assault women and use our position as cover (whoever told you that all sins are equal was out of their mind). When you make your whole response into some navel-gazing exercise about whether or not you’re better or worse than Ravi (concluding that you’re both pretty bad and you need Jesus), you’re leaving the victims standing there like you don’t care what happened to them. How about, instead, acting like you’ve just found out that something horrific was done to them? How about: “I can’t believe he did this to these women. I’m so sorry for what they endured! How can this be put as right as possible?” And of those who we now know were telling the truth, but whose claims were denied even though the evidence supported what they were saying, because people believed a practiced manipulator instead due to his position, we should now be saying: “How terrible, how absolutely terrible that they were treated this way. How disappointing it is that a ministry was organised and led in such a way that a man could be so untouchable and unaccountable, so that he could do this to these people. How dreadful for them. What can be done for them, and how can we prevent this sort of thing from happening in other ministries?”

This is what the victims should now be hearing and seeing, not “we are all sinners.” Do you really think we have forgotten that we are all sinners? It is true that a great and public fall should be an occasion for self-examination so as to avoid self-righteousness. Yes, we certainly do need to be careful not to use this as a chance to focus on the fact that while I might be guilty of all these sins, at least I am not guilty of that one. Yes, we should consider the truth that there is very little indeed separating you from sins that you might now regard as unthinkable. By all means go there, and have conversations about that. But please, when you publicly react to finding out that there is a list of victims of this man’s – or anybody’s – abuse, put first things first. To do otherwise is to seriously fall short in our obligation to love those who have been so terribly wronged.

Glenn Peoples

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