The Ravi Zacharias scandal and addiction

FEBRUARY 22 — Around last Christmas, it was confirmed that Ravi Zacharias, world-famous Christian evangelist and apologist who died in May 2020, was in all likelihood guilty of numerous acts of sexual impropriety.

The allegations started in August 2020, after which a team was set up by the board of Zacharias’ organisation (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, RZIM) to look into and verify/denounce them. 

In early February, the board released a full statement which also contains a link to the investigative report.

Needless to say, this is a terribly tragic event not only for the Christian evangelical community but even more so for the numerous victims involved. 

The destructive reality of addiction

Zacharias was not the first Christian leader implicated in such wrong-doing and it is almost certain he will not be the last.

Much fiery discussion has been raging on connected issues: The abuse of power and wealth by Christian leaders; the institutional culpability for abuse (or indifference towards victims); toxic organisational cultures; the refusal of some Christians to “accept” Zacharias’ guilt (or their failure to condemn him and RZIM in a sufficiently severe manner); how this scandal renders Zacharias’ approach to Christian apologetics invalid and so on.

The above are clearly important issues but I’d like to raise one I don’t see discussed much (or only mentioned in passing) with regards to this scandal, but which strikes me as crazy obvious and majorly critical: sexual addiction

Zacharias was not the first Christian leader implicated in such wrong-doing and it is almost certain he will not be the last. — Reuters pic
Zacharias was not the first Christian leader implicated in such wrong-doing and it is almost certain he will not be the last. — Reuters pic

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Reading the report, it looks like Zacharias had been sucked into a vortex of sexual desire since the turn of the century. This is undoubtedly speculation, but his career profile easily fits that of a relatively successful and high-flying individual who, over time, gradually indulged in more and more dubious activities.

The number of women and incidents points to the possibility that he was incapable of stopping.

When I say “incapable,” I’m not suggesting innocence. I’m suggesting self-produced incapacitation of will, control, conscience, etc. 

This is anything but innocence, but this is also the language of addiction which, alas, isn’t the language of a Sith Lord plotting to control the galaxy.

David Kessler coined the perfect word to describe the all-encompassing hold which an addiction slash obsession can have on the human mind: capture. It’s like the whole world is shut out and only that thing matters.

Now, throw in the need to protect a reputation and a huge organization and it looks like Zacharias navigated himself beyond the point of no return.

Let me be clear. To raise the subject matter of addiction is not at all to seek to reduce (let alone remove) guilt from the addict. But with some grace and patience, it may help us to rethink and transform notions of accountability and responsibility. Anyone reading this who’s struggled with addiction will understand.

Addiction is a black hole of desire which can completely annihilate one’s self-control if not sense of self. It’s a curse in which you encounter a doppelgänger which looks and talks and behaves like you but seems hell-bent on destroying everything you care about just to satisfy that addiction. How often does anybody talk about that, let alone among religious circles? 

Paradoxically, when we seek to understand addiction it may allow us to construct a more realistic portrait of Zacharias’ vices and crimes:

1) We need not resort to ideas of a cruel tyrant who does nothing but prey on helpless victims; the addict is also preyed on by his own warped inclinations. We can acknowledge the latter WITHOUT denying the intensity and malice of what the addict did.

2) We can understand the desperation, shame and anger involved in the addict’s attempts at covering up his deeds WITHOUT at all denying the wrongness of these cover-ups.

3) Understanding addiction gives us a glimpse of the losing battle Zacharias was fighting, a clue to the escalation involved until it all closed in, encompassing his thought-life, infecting his personality and relationships. 

4) Finally, recognising the addiction in such cases humbles us; it tempers our judgments and rage because it touches on something all of us are not immune to, and wouldn’t dare talk about openly (WITHOUT — again and in the least — brushing aside the hurt done to all the women involved).

At the very least, in whatever we say or don’t say, the X factor of compassion is allowed more leg room in responding to this and other cases.

I wish to close with a personal note.

Like many Christians who’ve read him, Ravi Zacharias had a lasting impact on my life. In fact, almost exactly a year ago during one of the worst family crises that I had to undergo, one of his early books helped spark some hope that things will get better. 

It is thus with much sadness that I accept that Zacharias can no longer be the role model of Christian character and witness I believed he was. I also hope that all the victims of his actions will be adequately redressed, compensated and that justice will be fully served (and seen to be served).

Finally, I think this case shows us how important it is to continually support and pray for our leaders, not only for their “success” but for them to prevail against their worst inclinations.

Further reading on addiction:

— Kessler D (2017) Capture: Unravelling the Mystery of Mental Suffering. New York: Harper Perennial.

— Lewis M (2016) The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease. Melbourne: Scribe.

— Manning B and Blake J (2015) All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook.

 *This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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