If you have followed the Ravi Zacharias story in recent years, you know that it’s a tragedy on multiple levels and a reminder of why repentance is a crucial element of orthodox Christianity.
I followed this story at a distance, because — unlike many religion-beat pros — I had next to zero contact with Zacharias. I interviewed him only once, by telephone, several decades ago. I thought that he was clever, especially when addressing Hollywood’s trendy take on Eastern religions (“Only in America would anyone argue that reincarnation is Good News).”
The stunning, sordid details of his abuse of women make it clear that he suffered from some kind of sexual addiction. And while his mind was razor-sharp when dissecting many questions about moral theology and ethics, he also used his intellectual gifts to justify his own behavior — to the point of saying that God was blessing his actions.
What can we learn from the news coverage of this scandal?
First of all, it’s a good example of what happens when editors allow religion-beat professionals to cover important stories on their beat. Second, the reporting — in Christianity Today and also in the mainstream press — is devastating because it is based on mountains of documentation and on-the-record sources, as well as the testimonies of victims who deserve privacy.
However, there is a third point that must be emphasized, echoing a point frequently made at GetReligion for nearly two decades. I repeat this as a way of stressing one of the biggest challenges facing journalists — even veteran religion-beat pros — covering stories of this kind.
The fall of Zacharias is a perfect example of why it is so difficult to cover independent, non-denominational parachurch ministries (and independent congregations, as well). Nine times out of 10, radically independent religious organizations are only as honest as their charismatic, gifted, rainmaker founders allow them to be. This is true whether we are talking yoga or the prosperity anti-gospel. It was true long ago when I worked with skilled investigative reporters trying to probe the hidden scandals of PTL’s Jim Bakker. Alas, this remains true today.
Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.
Readers who want to know the horrifying details of this case can start with Christianity Today or with The New York Times. Here is the summary material from CT:
A four-month investigation found the late Ravi Zacharias leveraged his reputation as a world-famous Christian apologist to abuse massage therapists in the United States and abroad over more than a decade while the ministry led by his family members and loyal allies failed to hold him accountable.
He used his need for massage and frequent overseas travel to hide his abusive behavior, luring victims by building trust through spiritual conversations and offering funds straight from his ministry.
Here’s another essential bite of that:
Even a limited review of Zacharias’s old [digital] devices revealed contacts for more than 200 massage therapists in the US and Asia and hundreds of images of young women, including some that showed the women naked. Zacharias solicited and received photos until a few months before his death in May 2020 at age 74.
“Ravi Zacharias, who died last spring, engaged in ‘sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape,’ according to a report released on Thursday by the global evangelical organization he founded.”
— Elizabeth Dias (@elizabethjdias) February 11, 2021
As the Times report makes clear, reporters were working from documentation provided — finally — by leaders of the ministry that Zacharias founded. He intended its work to continue, as his legacy.
Now, everything begins with these facts:
The announcement was the result of an investigation by a Southeastern law firm, Miller & Martin, which RZIM hired in October to investigate accounts of sexual misconduct by Mr. Zacharias.
“We believe not only the women who made their allegations public but also additional women who had not previously made public allegations against Ravi but whose identities and stories were uncovered during the investigation,” the ministry’s board of directors said in a statement accompanying the report. “We are devastated by what the investigation has shown and are filled with sorrow for the women who were hurt by this terrible abuse.” …
One massage therapist “reported details of many encounters over a period of years that she described as rape,” the report says. She said Mr. Zacharias talked with her about topics including her faith and her finances, and she came to think of him as a “father figure.” After he arranged for his ministry to provide her with financial support, however, he demanded sex, according to the report. Mr. Zacharias, it says, “warned her not ever to speak out against him or she would be responsible for the ‘millions of souls’ whose salvation would be lost if his reputation was damaged.”
After more details, equally as hellish as that, the Times offered this devastating quote:
Mr. Zacharias said in 2017 that in 45 years of marriage, “I have never engaged in any inappropriate behavior of any kind.”
It’s important to note that this lengthy Times report didn’t just settle for sexy details on the surface level of this scandal. It also addressed why the fall of this particular thinker and preacher was important.
I thought this passage was especially strong:
The report is a devastating blow for the reputation of a man who was for decades a widely admired evangelical leader. Born in Chennai, India, and boasting impressive academic credentials, he had a reputation among many evangelicals as a worldly and winsome intellectual. His ministry’s motto is “Helping the thinker believe. Helping the believer think.”
Mr. Zacharias specialized in apologetics, a tradition that focuses on making logical appeals for the truth of the Christian faith, and equipping evangelicals to engage non-believers in conversations about faith.
At the end of the story, there was this:
For some, the disillusionment was compounded because it involved a ministry that invited tough questions, and prided itself on pursuing the truth. “RZIM welcomed doubts about Jesus Christ but refused questions about Ravi Zacharias,” said Daniel Gilman, a former speaker in the organization’s Canadian office.
As I said earlier, there are several solid news stories available linked to the investigation of RZIM. People who have followed the sins of the #ChurchToo era, and those who have paid a price to seek justice, will see several familiar names.
Readers should consider reading the Religion News Service report, which even managed to get the word “apologist” into the lede, in place of the broader word “evangelist.”
The other essay that I think is essential reading was written by David French, who is a journalist, a Harvard Law graduate and an evangelical Christian with ties to many ministries that he has supported and helped defend in courtrooms.
The headline at The Dispatch was taken from an insult hurled at one of the women who, before the final collapse, pushed RZIM leaders to dig deeper and be honest about what they found: “ ‘You Are One Step Away from Complete and Total Insanity’ — The inside story of how Ravi Zacharias’s ministry concealed and enabled his abuse.” French states that his goal was to “help answer a single question: how could a Christian ministry fail to discover serial sexual misconduct and dreadful abuse by their founder and leader until months after his death?”
French is candid about his own links to this ministry and his admiration for Zacharias’ work as a writer, speaker and apologist. That only makes the essay more powerful and sobering.
Journalists seeking insights into the post-denominational world will want to focus on this list of French takeaways from this tragedy. This is long, but essential:
What are the lessons we can learn? Some are obvious. When family members of founders occupy the controlling heights of an organization, they are placed under immense strain and face an obvious conflict of interest when their father is accused of misconduct. Rigorous, independent investigations should be mandatory when accusers come forward. Compliance with reasonable investigatory requests (such as turning over phones and other communications equipment) must be required. Governing boards should be powerful, independent, and transparent.
I can go on. Nondisclosure agreements — especially in Christian ministries — are poisonous and enable additional abuse. Do not trust instincts over evidence. Never say, “I know this man, and he would never do anything like this.” The goal of any organization facing claims of abuse should be discerning truth, not discrediting accusers. All accusers should be treated immediately — publicly and privately — with dignity and respect.
But it goes even deeper. Christian ministries are populated by leadership teams who derive not just their paychecks but also their own public reputations from their affiliation with the famous founder. They’re admired in part because the founder is admired. They have influence in part because the founder has influence. When the founder fails, they lose more than a paycheck. There is powerful personal incentive to circle the wagons and to defend the ministry, even when that defense destroys lives.
The zeal to protect the leader and punish or discredit the accuser can also rest in a particular brand of arrogance. “My ministry is necessary.” “Souls are at stake.” “Look at all the good we’re doing.” In reality, God will accomplish His purposes, with or without any of us, regardless of our gifts or talents.
This is just the latest example of why newsroom managers need to hire experienced religion-beat professionals. Now. Period. No excuses.