Preface: The following is me processing some of the responses to my take on Ravi Zacharias. If you found it triggering, please exercise care in reading this. I’m processing my own errors and problematic reads of the situation, which hopefully will benefit people in a similar place. But it’s my primary wish that I do no further harm, hence this warning.
The TL;DR is that some parts of my take were insufficiently clearly targeted, are problematic, and I’m sorry that that caused harm to some readers. One person spoke up, but I assume I have other harmed friends that did not.
I recently wrote my thoughts about the Ravi Zacharias findings, where basically everything awful he was accused of was true, and it was in some cases even worse. I had a specific audience in mind for that piece, though I don’t think I was explicitly clear about that. I was thinking about people who had received beneficial spiritual formation from the hands of toxic or problematic people and/or organizations. While Zacharias was not a meaningful part of my spiritual formation in any direct way, he probably was through the people he influenced. But for me, it was an arms-length problem.
I can tell you who I was not thinking about directly, and that’s survivors of abuse.
Rachael Denhollander, a well-known survivor who also works with organizations to root out abuse culture, and who is in fact working with RZIM, had this to say about the many thinkpieces being produced:
She goes on in the thread to talk about the Monday morning quarterbacks out there who applaud the right steps being taken but had nothing to say while women were being harmed, or worse, sided with the abuser.
I thought that this was concerning and wondered if my comments would be considered that way. So I quoted her tweet with this:
I checked in with my emotions and didn’t feel defensive, but was a little concerned. Still, I went by the old Southern maxim “a hit dog’ll holler”, so I figured if I didn’t want to holler, I was okay.
My piece was generally well-received. Several women I know read it positively and said so. I even had a man with similar experiences to me contact me privately and say it was helpful to them in processing their own experiences with spiritual abuse. I felt good about that.
Then, another friend challenged me on the Facebook page where I had posted the original piece. Facebook is a notoriously difficult medium to read emotion, but she sounded angry and upset to me, and described how she thought my recommendations about the ways that we should process these findings were problematic and contributed to abuse culture. I responded to clarify, but it seemed to make it worse. She even took words I had written the same day about how the Republican Party’s fealty to Trump makes me not trust people who call themselves Republican and align with party leadership but say they have my interests at heart and threw them back in my face, essentially saying I no longer felt like a safe person.
I’m a peacemaker by nature, which when undeveloped becomes people-pleasing. I don’t like to make people upset, and I like to find common ground. So I sat with the horrible feeling in my stomach from hurting my friend and tried to separate my own prideful indignation at being challenged and being accused of being a friend to people like Zacharias, my desire for her to not be mad at me, and my desire to understand whether I had legitimately gotten something wrong.
I do racial reconciliation work with the administrative team at Be The Bridge. We recognize that our white participants have a steep hill to climb, coming from a society that for generations has unreasonably centered them, coddled their whims, and stunted their empathy. Seeing that work up close has caused me to have more empathy for white people who are in that process, though I do not excuse failure to try to get better or to humbly receive correction.
As a cishet Christian man, in conversations about spiritual abuse, especially those with a sexual component, I’m the white person. I’m the one who has had my sinful behavior ignored or encouraged and had my empathy stunted. So when people tell me that my words are problematic, I try to listen. I know that no matter what I say, I will not please everyone, and that’s the hard part. As my friend was the first to say, “we can disagree”. But people who are on the lower end of the power dynamics axis get a lot of say about whether something is problematic.
I want to quote Louis C.K. here and say “if someone says you hurt them, you don’t get to tell them you didn’t.” But, well, you know.
In my reflection, I asked my wife to help me understand what about my post is problematic, or at least what could be read that way. She mentioned some comments I made about allowing his books to stand in response to a “what’s next” question as possibly giving the impression that I thought his legacy should stand. I agree that that was a problematic take. The most challenging part of my post, about holding the good and the evil people have done in quantum superposition, was meant to be challenging, but not to survivors. It was meant to challenge the people that throw the whole church away over that kind of corruption, or those that were spiritually formed in positive ways by his work and don’t want to fully acknowledge the evil of the person that produced it, or process what that means they have to change in themselves to decouple themselves from it. I’m not a person that’s going to tell you to try to remember the great work Hitler did with the trains. But, I have found that that quantum holding, as I describe it, allows me to remember my own humanity and how I am not above anything evil a human has done, and thus better guard against it. It also helps me process perpetrators of harm who are themselves survivors of harm, which is important but not relevant in this particular context.
I think speaking into the American evangelical context sympathetically causes people to make assumptions about the theological underpinnings of where I’m coming from. That context is sadly known for preservation of power and marginalization of voices. So let me say a few things to clarify:
- I believe forgiveness, repentance, and repair are distinct processes. Forgiveness does not mean re-entry into relationship with a harmful person, and it does not mean that you are okay with what they have done. And you can be heartily sorry about something you did and yet do nothing to make sure something like that never happens again.
- I believe women can be called to serve the church in any capacity, including leadership or head of household.
- I do not believe survivors are obligated to view things any particular way beyond what they need to heal and find wholeness.
- I am not asserting that we “love the sinner” and “hate the sin”. Causing earthly harm demands earthly consequences and those consequences should be paid. If we are talking about radical love of people, it is unloving to deprive someone of consequences for their actions and thus allow them to fall further away. Put more simply, God’s grace doesn’t give you a get out of jail free card.
- I do not know the consequences of an unrepentant life in the afterlife, but I believe there are some. My understanding of God leads me to believe those consequences, while painful, would be on a path to restoration rather than damnation, but that’s for the unrepentant sinner and God to work out, not me. My job is to not be that person when I die.
- I do not believe we need to hold up the good someone has done in a public conversation about the evil they have done.
- I do not believe we need to preserve the work of Ravi Zacharias and continue to teach or share it.
In the paragraph that was problematic, I was trying to find a way to help people reconcile the beneficial spiritual formation they’ve received with the behavior of the person they received it from. I do see how that challenge to hold tension could be read as insisting survivors forgive the perpetrators of violence against them, or otherwise engage in work that they are not obligated to do. I also see how someone could read my comments as a call to keep the work he did and throw out the person. That is how that read, but that is not what I intended to say. My wife gave me a useful metric: how would you process this in the secular world? Thinking about the cases of Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, how would you tell people to process their work?
In answering that question, I had to admit that I feel differently about R. Kelly than I do about Bill Cosby. R. Kelly was so blatant and contemptuous in his predatory actions that I “canceled” him a long time ago before that was a phenomenon, when he released The Chocolate Factory and called himself the Pied Piper of R&B, from the fairy tale about the man who leads the children of Hamelin to ruin. Cosby however, was a trickier case for me. I believed the women who spoke out. I think he should be in jail. But I wasn’t super excited about them canceling syndication of his show. It was, in fact, spiritually formative for a lot of us.
So what does that mean? Am I okay with predators who move in secret and have the “decency” to not throw it in our faces?
As I was preparing for bed, I was jokingly singing an old 90s rap in a mid-century American musical songbook style (I know, I’m a weirdo). I stopped myself when I realized that the lyric I was about to say was also the title of the song. “Bitches Ain’t Shit”.
Men, yes, even us “good” ones, are so thoroughly indoctrinated in our hatred of and disregard for women that it feels like breathing. When I contemplate where I actually am standing and look up, the well seems so deep that I am not sure how I’m going to climb out. I don’t think my empathy and care muscles are completely atrophied. I may even be reasonably well-developed, but that’s only comparatively speaking. That’s not an assessment based on what we need to get out of the well. This internalized, pervasive misogyny is a bigger problem than what’s going on in the church, and I frankly don’t know what to do about it other than continuing to stumble, be corrected, and trying to become the kind of person that does not cause such harm anymore. My responsibility, my obligation is to keep grabbing the slippery, mossy stones, and to press upward toward the light until the day I die, even if I never make it out.
It’s hard, though. I learned these songs when I was 15-17 years old. I got fed imagery and behavior through multiple modes of media from much younger than that. I was raised to love my mother and sister, to respect women. And there are a lot of white people out there who were raised to speak kindly to Black people as well and treat the ones in their lives well. It doesn’t mean you are clear. It will show up in who you acknowledge first when they come into a room, in your assumption of who’s in charge, in your mentoring a young man, but merely managing your attraction to a young woman that you aren’t even practically interested in. This is the work for the “good ones”: to realize you’re not so good and not to rest complacently in the truth that “everyone’s a sinner”, but to press toward the mark of treating all the image bearers of God, male, female, non-binary, with the dignity, respect, and care that is warranted by their very existence.
I am sorry that insufficient care in my analysis led to harm for some readers. I will exercise more care in the future when touching on subjects involving abuse and survivors.