Hi and welcome back! To top off the dumpster fire of 2020 comes a story that is also not even really news anymore: a big-name evangelical leader turned out to be a prolific sex abuser. Indeed, recently Ravi Zacharias’ ministry/business told donors the news. Yes indeed, the rumors about their deceased Dear Leader are true. For decades, he sexually abused a number of women. However, one aspect of the story caught my eye. Today, let me show you exactly how evangelical leaders like Ravi Zacharias get away with heinous abuse.
Everyone, Meet Ravi Zacharias. He’s Dead.
Evangelicals just adore Ravi Zacharias. During his lifetime, many evangelicals regarded him as a great apologist. He started a
business ministry called RZIM, or Ravi Zacharias International Ministry. Of course it had to have his name in the title!
(RZIM still trucks along. They print tracts and apologetics material, then sell this stuff to confrontation-averse Christians to hand out to heathens. Like all apologetics businesses, they exist more for current Christians than anybody else. (See endnote.))
Ravi Zacharias died this past May of a fast-acting, malignant cancer. However, various misconduct allegations have trailed along in his wake for years.
That said, it’s a very typical story in evangelicalism by now. Who’s even surprised these days when a big-name evangelical leader turns out to be a sex abuser?
The Big 2017 Sex Abuse Accusation.
In 2017, Christianity Today reported on various academic and credentialing claims Ravi Zacharias made that aren’t true. Along with those allegations, they also reported on a sex-abuse accusation against him.
Zacharias easily evaded that one. He painted his accuser as a fan who’d gotten totally obsessed with him, though he did sorrowfully confess to entering into a long private text conversation with her. Such a conversation would have definitely looked improper to his tribe no matter what he did during it, so he apologized to his fans.
He also filed an extortion lawsuit against the accuser, made her sign a non-disclosure agreement that silenced her for good, and acted like he was being totally persecuted by Satan himself for being soooooo Jesus-y.
The ploy and the lawsuit both worked grandly.
Ravi Zacharias must have been so relieved to close that chapter of his life.
See, he had much bigger skeletons in his closet than that. Some sexting grossness? Oh, that represented the very least of his offenses.
And Then, More Accusations.
A few months after the death of Ravi Zacharias, three women came forward to accuse him of long-term sexual harassment.
He co-owned a couple of spas in the Atlanta area back in the 2000s. The accusers had worked at these spas. They alleged that when Ravi Zacharias came in for treatments there, he sexually harassed them. They said for years, he’d come in, expose himself to the workers, and fondle himself in front of them.
One employee claimed the great apologist had masturbated in front of her more than 50 times and often demanded naked pictures of her. Other employees claimed he touched and groped them without their permission.
There’s more, and it is all really awful. These accusations paint the picture of a powerful man in a very authoritarian organization who’d clawed his way to the top and now intended to enjoy every bit of the power he’d amassed. They tell a story of a man who was so powerful that he knew he could bat away any allegations against him just through the sheer force of his reputation and network of protective fellow leaders.
I doubt we’ve heard the last accusations, either. Ravi Zacharias traveled a lot for business. It’s hard to imagine him holding back in other countries if he couldn’t keep his hands to himself in North America.
Ravi Zacharias: The Greatest
Another of his employees, a man working for RZIM, offers us the same picture painted from a different angle. Carson Weitnauer wrote a post on Reasons for God titled:
A Catastrophic Betrayal: The “Greatest Apologist” was the Greatest Fraud
In this essay, he describes how excited he was, as a young, bright-eyed evangelical lad, to start working for RZIM. Hooray Team Jesus!
When Ravi Zacharias filed the lawsuit against his 2017 accuser, he communicated with his
business ministry in ways that characterized her behavior as “Satanic attacks.” As a worker for that business ministry, Carson Weitnauer completely accepted this characterization. It wasn’t until this year that he realized the truth:
As I studied this information carefully — again and again and again — it slowly dawned on me that Ravi had personally and repeatedly lied to me and others in the ministry about his relationship with [Lori Anne Thompson, the 2017 accuser]. If true, it revealed that his RICO lawsuit was a malicious attempt to bully his victim into silence, and that Ravi had perjured himself in the effort.
More humbling and embarrassing was the realization that the public evidence was sufficient for me to have pieced together the truth in 2017.
However, he didn’t investigate the matter in 2017, much less piece together his idol’s wrongdoing and self-serving dishonesty. I don’t think very many fans of Ravi Zacharias did. Nor did any evangelicals that I know of.
Then, Weitnauer writes, the new 2020 accusations came out against his onetime idol.
And strangely, Jesus didn’t tip any of them off about the truth of the new accusations, either.
The 2020 Accusations.
As mentioned, a few months after the death of Ravi Zacharias, more accusations surfaced from the spa employees. RZIM and his family responded to those accusations in a predictable way:
They insisted all of the accusations just had to be false. Their reasoning: none of these accusations seemed in-character for the great apologist they knew and loved.
Religion News brought us their official statement in September:
“We, the family and ministry teammates of the late Ravi Zacharias, can say the allegations now being made against Ravi do not in any way comport with the man we knew for decades—we believe them to be false,” the statement said. “These allegations pertain to businesses that were closed nearly a decade ago. These allegations were never made during Ravi’s lifetime, but were first presented to a third party more than three months after his death.”
So these accusations just didn’t fit their image of the great apologist and weren’t made the way the tribe likes best, so they rejected them.
However, RZIM hired someone to conduct an “independent external investigation” of the accusations.
Just to be on the safe side.
Just in case.
RZIM expects to release the investigation’s findings in the next month or two. However, they made an interim statement on December 23rd on their official website.
This time, their tone sounds very different:
Sadly, the interim investigation update indicates this assessment of Ravi’s behavior to be true—that he did indeed engage in sexual misconduct.
This misconduct is deeply troubling and wholly inconsistent with the man Ravi Zacharias presented both publicly and privately to so many over more than four decades of public ministry.
Even now, his family and close associates seem completely gobsmacked, just utterly mystified that the Ravi Zacharias they knew could possibly have done such terrible things.
I sense a hint of plausible deniability going on here, too. They clearly hope that nobody will blame them for anything they’ve done (or more to the point, failed to do).
Neither their leader’s predatory behavior nor RZIM’s reaction surprises me in the least.
Not even a little. Not even a bit.
How Ravi Zacharias Got Away With It: Part One.
Truth One: Evangelicals protect their own.
Leaders alike protect each other and can be reliably expected to value their organizations/churches/ministries/businesses’ interests far above the safety of those leaders’ flocks and employees.
But even the flocks themselves tend to protect their own leaders — and that means ignoring or downplaying any accusations against them. It also means punishing and silencing their accusers by any means possible. That’s probably why his accusers emerged after his death.
Even a true-blue follower who even questions a powerful leader can expect the full retaliatory brunt of the tribe’s rage. Carson Weitnauer almost experienced it himself, as he writes:
Yet the day after I asked her [Ravi Zacharias’ daughter, one of RZIM’s leaders] a series of questions about the non-disclosure agreement between the Thompsons and the Zacharias estate, two senior leaders challenged me on the propriety of my questions. [. . .] While I believe most of my colleagues are not only talented but earnestly committed to serving God, we have been badly misled by our secretive board and senior leaders. [Source]
That “secretive” word he used doesn’t surprise me either. Hiding information that might paint a big-name evangelical as a sex abuser and predator? That’d be the very least I’d expect of evangelical leaders.
But there’s another piece to this puzzle of how Ravi Zacharias got away with sex abuse for years.
How to Fool a Monster: Part Two.
Truth Two: It’s painfully easy for predators to trick evangelicals into thinking they’re sincere and following the rules.
Evangelicals have no way whatsoever to figure out the actual truth about anything related to their religious beliefs. They possess no critical thinking skills, which means they cannot evaluate truth claims at all, except to measure them against whatever they currently hold to be true. If it tallies up with their current beliefs, it must be true.
But when it comes to evaluating the behavior of their tribemates and leaders, they’re even worse off.
Evangelicals’ shows of piety all consist of performative and transactional behaviors. Thus, anybody can act like a true-blue evangelical in their presence and be taken for the real deal. They’ve all been trained to protect their leaders above even themselves, and they’ve also been trained not to question any excuses, claims, and testimonies they hear.
The higher-up an evangelical leader is in a given evangelical’s estimation, the harder it is for that evangelical to perceive that leader in any objective way.
Something I Wish Bothered Evangelicals.
And just to cap off this shit sundae with a C. diff cherry, here’s the worst part of all:
Predators who can fake evangelical sincerity well will go much further up the ladder of power — and faster — than Christians who try their best to realistically and authentically live out their faith.
As a result, it is completely, utterly, and in every single way impossible for evangelicals to tell a hypocritical predator from a sincere, decent-hearted TRUE CHRISTIAN™. The only way evangelicals can ever tell someone’s faking is if ultra-strong, ultra-conclusive evidence comes out contradicting their image of that person. Even then, as previously noted, they will probably reject it. It takes a lot to pierce through their illusions.
I just wish it bothered evangelicals at all that they can’t tell predators from prey, hypocrites from true-blue believers, and lies from truth. Cuz there are a lot more Ravi Zachariases in their ranks. I guarantee it.
And Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested at all in warning the flocks about these predators in their churches. Nor does he care about protecting the sheep from them.
NEXT UP: The lessons authoritarians learn about kindness. See you tomorrow!
Regarding RZIM: The first time I ever heard of RZIM was on the comment section of a Christian post years ago, maybe 2012 or 2013. I asserted there that tracts are a hopelessly inefficient recruitment tool that exist more to fleece existing Christians than to recruit new ones. Some lady who worked for RZIM in some capacity got very snippy at me in response. She thought tracts were super-duper useful and powerful. I told her that motivated reasoning might be going on in her thinking, since her employers made their living selling the things. That answer got her even more snippy at me. This exchange with a hypocrite was literally the first time I’d ever heard of RZIM — and it’d be a while still before I found out what the “RZ” part of the name even meant. (Back to the post!)
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Last thoughts: I bet any one of our community members could walk into any evangelical church next Sunday and convince every single person in the pews there that they’re lifelong, firm, and fervent tribemates. It’d be even easier if they can mimic the cadence of evangelical speech and use Christianese jargon.