We now know that the late Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias was a sexual predator who paid multiple massage therapists using donations to his ministry, allegedly demanded sex in return from at least one of them, inappropriate touched and exposed himself to women, and spiritually abused women so they wouldn’t speak out against him. And all of that is just the beginning.
A full report of his misdeeds came out earlier this week, and evangelical Christians who lionized him need to come to terms with how they either failed to stop him or didn’t even realize there was a problem when he was alive despite at least one woman speaking out against him years ago.
The Gospel Coalition, an evangelical website, just posted an article by editor-in-chief Collin Hansen about how Christians clearly had a blind spot when it came to Zacharias and how they must confront it moving forward.
… I don’t see a lot of surprise, because his abuse looks like the pattern of sexual exploitation we’ve come to understand from men who betray trust. We’ve learned to identify the steps. He preyed on the vulnerable. He leveraged his ministry influence to intimidate victims. He convinced the world he couldn’t be the kind of monster they imagine sexual predators to be.
Sounds about right. No issues there.
But a large part of Hansen’s response references the revelation that Zacharias used special work phones to carry on “text- and email-based relationships with women who were not his wife” and had on those devices “over 200 ‘selfie’-style photographs of women.”
Those are undoubtedly unethical. I would argue that masturbating in front of women without consent, demanding sex from his massage therapists, and telling women that going public with their stories could put “millions of souls” in danger of eternal hellfire are far more troubling… but, okay, the sexting isn’t great either.
Still, Hansen thinks the big takeaway from the Zacharias story is that we need to do a better job monitoring the phones of Christian leaders.
At the same time, digital communications helped Zacharias in his abuse. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine this crime without the ubiquity of smartphones for taking and sharing sexual images. It’s not just boys in junior high who know how to demand nude selfies. We used to think the Billy Graham Rule and windows on the pastor’s door would protect victims. Now we know they’re more likely to be targeted through text messages on burner phones.
Sex is increasingly disembodied with the ubiquity of porn. Abuse follows the same pattern. Ministry policies for prevention and protection must fully account for this shift.
Leave it to an evangelical to hear about sexual abuse and jump right to blaming porn and phones.
Zacharias didn’t commit abuse because he had access to burner phones and porn. Those phones were one tool of many that he used to commit abuse. He didn’t need his iPhone when getting those massages. He wasn’t receiving nude pictures when exposing himself to women. Plenty of people watch porn without abusing women. If this were decades earlier, then he would’ve used some other tool; that’s the point. You could take away every smartphone and people would still be unethical.
By shifting blame to the tools he used, and not the lack of oversight, or the unearned trust, or the problems with men in evangelical leadership, or the other root problems that led to his abuse, it’s never going to end.
Hansen acknowledges some of this later in the article, but he sure as hell doesn’t spend multiple paragraphs blaming a church culture that allows pastors and ministry leaders to do whatever they please while their boards dismiss allegations of abuse whenever women have the courage to come forward. No wonder this problem isn’t going away.