Like many people in my circles, I’ve been watching with a sinking sadness in recent days as credible revelations about Ravi Zacharias’s sexually predatory behavior continue to mount. Not that I’ve been too shocked. Earlier last year, I sat down with a friend to review the publicly available primary source material related to the Lori Anne Thompson case. At that time, I was already troubled by what seemed like damning marks of credibility in the texture of the documentation, which appeared to contradict the official narrative put out by the ministry. I partially drafted some thoughts on the occasion of Ravi’s death, but on reflection I chose to leave it in drafts. A journalist friend later told me he thought that was just as well. Now I see more than ever he was right. The interim report released by RZIM is, if anything, more damning by virtue of its understatement, alluding to yet more revelations to come that are even worse than what’s already known. Suffice it to say, the prognosis is grim.
I personally never had the connection to Ravi’s work that others had. But I still have memories of flipping on the radio when I was young and hearing that voice. You either have It or you don’t, and even as a casual fan I could tell Ravi had It, in spades. While unknown to many outside the small pond of evangelical culture, that voice was a fixture in that pond for decades. For many of my friends and acquaintances, Ravi’s work played a key role in either strengthening their Christian faith or bringing them to faith in the first place. It seems safe to say that few names carried so much currency or were so universally beloved.
Occasionally, I would dip back into Ravi’s corpus as I got older and began to develop my own voice as a Christian communicator. His blend of the cerebral and the humanistic was an aspirational goal for me. I admired his ability to draw on literature and the arts, to tell a compelling story, and to communicate clearly without condescension. I admired the way he seemed to shift seamlessly between worlds and be at ease with people from any walk of life. In the wake of his death, various people came forward with stories about how he would go out of his way to connect personally with those at the bottom of the social totem pole—learning their names, thanking them for their work, never taking people for granted because of their status. I especially liked a story from a cleaning lady with whom he struck up a friendship (entirely chaste, by her account). This was an example. This was something to aim for. Or so it seemed.
Now, if these allegations are to be believed, we have a much uglier, much darker picture to wrestle with. In hindsight, we’re being forced to contend with who and what it appears Ravi actually was: a walking contradiction. A divided man. Worst of all, a divided man who, unlike King David, chose not to repent even at the last.
It would be easy to say this nullifies everything good that Ravi said or did. Every word of wisdom, every kindness to a stranger, every thoughtful attention given to someone who had nothing to offer him. Are all these things in some cosmic sense “cancelled” by the calculated lying, the manipulation, the ongoing indulgence of sexual appetite at the expense of women’s bodies and consciences?
Someone else told me the other day he went through a similar process of wrestling when the Jean Vanier revelations broke. Vanier, a Catholic writer and social worker, was a pioneer of disability care whose L’Arche ministry flourishes in locations around the world to this day. After his death, it emerged that he had ongoingly used his influence to manipulate and seduce a revolving door of young women, including fellow workers. I had only recently discovered Vanier’s work when those allegations came out. I thought his theology left much to be desired, but he seemed to be a decent, caring man with a large heart for those marginalized by severe physical and mental disability. (In his quiet dedication and avoidance of a celebrity spotlight, he seemed like the anti-Carl Lentz, to give another example of a celebrity pastor recently fallen from grace.) When I watched a documentary about L’Arche, I was deeply moved by the footage of him walking alongside the patients, gently talking to them, holding their hand in silence and ensuring they felt loved. Once again, as with Ravi, the same questions rise up: What does this mean? How can these two men, seemingly, live in one man?
I don’t think these questions have easy answers. I think it’s too easy to say it was only in their evil actions that the “true” Ravi, the “true” Jean, were displayed, and everything else was an artful sham. I don’t think either man could have built and driven their ministries if there hadn’t been some deep level on which they still “believed” in what they were doing, even though, paradoxically, they didn’t live like it. One could even say that in a deeply disturbing though psychologically believable sense, their gifts and their besetting sins were intertwined.
This may be the key thing we take away from stories like these, not only as Christians but as students of human nature. As Catholic writer Stephen Greydanus astutely observed in the wake of the Vanier scandals, many of the qualities that make an effective leader can make an effective predator: charisma; passion; potency; the capacity to make people feel individually seen, individually cared for. And again, I think it’s simplistic to dismiss this last quality as pure, unadulterated put-on. I would like to think Ravi Zacharias spoke kindly to the cleaning lady because in that moment, with the best of who he was, he genuinely, unfeignedly loved the cleaning lady. I would like to think Jean Vanier held and comforted the non-verbal disabled man because in that moment, with the best of who he was, he genuinely, unfeignedly loved the non-verbal disabled man.
But power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Over and over, we have seen how when that one undeniably gifted, charismatic leader is elevated and propped up by a network of enablers, unchecked predatory sin is the almost inevitable by-product. It doesn’t matter the leader’s age, race, denomination, politics. Evangelical or mainline, fundamentalist or progressive, it’s the same story, every time: the story of how Satan takes the best of who we are and twists it into the worst.
And yet, when speaking to a young friend who looked up to Ravi Zacharias and has been crushed by this news, I gave him some encouragement which I would give to anyone reading this: We should not allow these stories to harden us to the point that we can no longer allow ourselves to have heroes, to have men to whose examples we aspire. We are fundamentally aspirational creatures. It wasn’t wrong for us to admire Ravi when he still seemed to be the man he presented to us on stage. It was natural. It was human. And even though Ravi has fallen, there are still plenty of men in the field who are still worthy of that admiration. Just as we must avoid the pitfalls of wagon-circling and naivete, so we must avoid the pitfalls of cynicism, of holding men in suspicion without cause merely because we’ve been burned before. And we must also consider soberly how any one of us might be shaped and twisted with such power at our fingertips. Like Gandalf refusing the One Ring, Christian men must know themselves well enough to refuse that which can destroy them.
Ravi’s reputation is in tatters. But the Church will carry on without him, just as God allowed her to carry on with him. May this tarnished legacy be both a warning and a reminder that in His hand, even the worst of men can be an instrument.