I wrote this last year, as a way to process the story of Ravi Zacharias. And even though Ravi has already long faded from the whir of the news cycle, I share it now with you because the story of men like him keeps repeating itself again and again—men who use their positions of power to sexually harm those in their sphere. I wanted to ask the question: How do men like him happen? Do these men lose their essential humanness and truly become monstrous? What goes on inside of them? As you’ll see, the story kind of wrote itself the same week more details emerged about Ravi’s scandal. Its never goes well to moralize a story. But maybe we can all find a new way to be human when we see where he gave up on his.
A Story of a Prostitute
On a Sunday morning in February last year, our pastor told the story of a woman in our city who had been a prostitute. As a victim of human trafficking, she worked on the East side of town at a massage-parlor-fronted brothel. The owner, her functional pimp, paid her just enough so she could afford rent for an apartment he also owned, one that did not even have a working bathroom. She was stuck, financially enslaved to him, bound to a cycle she could never leave.
And then she got COVID. As our pastor pointed out, what would be devastating for most, became a ticket to freedom for her. She was forced by her pimp to find different work away from the spa to cover her rent, which gave her a chance to branch out and taste freedom. That’s where our church and another stepped in to help her pay rent on a new apartment out of town and free from prostitution.
Its at once a tragic and beautiful story. And that’s how my heart felt it—with all the harrowing horror of abuse to the leaping joy of her freedom.
That same Sunday afternoon, I read the story of Ravi Zacharias and the revelations of his horrendous sexual exploits and abuses all brought to light that week in a report from his organization and the accompanying Christianity Today article. I read the accounts of several of his victims employed in the massage parlor he also owned. It struck me that, in so many ways, I was reading the same story I had heard that morning at church. Ravi took advantage of these women’s financial and relational hardships and their sincere spiritual yearning to manipulate, coerce, and force them into sexual harm, only to threaten them never to speak up.
Ravi played the part of a pimp, setting up businesses that serviced his sexual crimes. Only worse, he used his enormous spiritual influence to hide these acts, even committing these crimes and abuses in the name of conversations about these women’s genuine spiritual hunger. Ravi was a pimp for himself. Its the stuff of horror, haunting with every detail the evil it contains. If this is a nightmare, Ravi is its monster.
For the rest of the evening, my wife and I talked about the story—groaning at these monstrous abuses, praying for the victims, and bemoaning the similarity to so many other Christian leaders who have been caught in such dubious sins. And the question became: How did it happen? How did he happen? Was he no longer human, bent to his bones on horrible abuse? Or was he still a man somewhere in there, with a heart that could care? What truly happened to him?
There is no doubt that Ravi was a fragmented man, living a double life as we say it, with separate selves existing for decades. That he lived split apart is not in question. So thorough was the fissure, his sexual crimes were not something he ever let be known to nearly anyone in his life. No close intimates to this day have disclosed knowing he had any sexual struggles. The man was so strategic he bought businesses that could allow him access to victims with impunity to his character. It all fit nicely under the guise of his need for massages for his back pain.
He even rented two apartments in Thailand, where he traveled to write. He used one to write in by day and another to get massages by night. And due to the anonymity of these late day massages, we may never know what he actually did there. The notes app on his phone contained translated phrases like, “a little lower please.” We can guess with probability that he intended something more than massages, possibly even criminal activity.
But being split as a person—what we may call our fragmented or shadow selves—does not make one inherently monstrous. All of us live with some form of dissociation. We may fragment from pain or trauma or suffering. Or we may disown parts of ourselves out of shame, the fruit of feeling unwanted by a family or spiritual community. The reasons could be many, all arising from the reality of living outside of Eden.
We are all the broken hearted. We all have had parts of us that we push to the fringes of our being, keeping them out of the light for fear of how they might expose us. Its what we hold in shame. Over time, all this stuff heals as we address it, as we talk about it and pull it into the light. But we have to face it. As Joseph Campbell wrote of every hero’s journey, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” The selves we have disowned are hidden in that cave of shame.
Its fairly common (maybe its all of us) for our sexuality to be pushed into the shadows—the place we hide the parts we feel shame for. So very many live with sexual fragmentation. This can come from sexual trauma or even just a religious or cultural sense of shame around sexuality, wounding in itself. Yet, again, this does not by itself make someone a sexual monster.
Shadow selves become more than shadows when we disown them and push them into the wilds of our being. These parts of us don’t go away. They just take on a life of their own. As Robert Bly says, “Every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us.” This may be in the form of anxiety or flashbacks or depression or any number of symptoms. We may also just feel shutdown or lose ourselves or our voice in certain ways. We may feels strong pulls towards addiction or numbing.
Our shadows have a way of coming home and knocking on our door asking us to pay attention to them. If we repeatedly ignore these requests from our heart for engagement, that part will grow more unruly in its attempt to get our attention. And the more unruly and desperate our broken selves become, the more it takes to keep them shut up and at bay. And greater deception is required to keep those parts of us away. Again Bly here says, “The story goes that when we put a part of ourselves in the [shadows] it regresses.” While we keep the exterior polished, the part of us we disown grow wild and desperate. This is still not yet what makes someone a monster.
This is when most people get help. Something goes wrong. The divided self became a double life somewhere. And the double life just fell apart. We may lose it, fly into a rage on someone. We may wake up from a drunken night of who-knows-what or lose it at work in anger or get caught texting in an affair or looking at porn. It could also be a mental or physical break down from trying to perform so well you run yourself into the ground. And you can’t do it anymore. These people have not become monsters, but maybe they’ve lost their integrity and literally they can’t hold it together. The split within has caught up with them.
It is normal to want to be a self. To want to be whole. To want to have integrity. And when people fall apart or feel like they’re a mess, its probably the closest they’ve come in a long time to being whole. When you can’t keep up the lie, you have a chance to become whole again, the double life becoming one life, your life, even if its a mess in the moment.
The Monster is Born
When someone perpetuates their split, revels in a shifting personality, is okay to be two people, and really takes no care to be a real person, a true self, that’s when that person becomes a monster. They use their own splits. No longer simply a secret life, it becomes an entire system of functioning, a personality ponzi scheme, where one self fuels the evils of the other. You can have a personality and have no self. These are people who refuse to be a self. They refuse to become grounded. They revel in the shape shifting nature of being split. Shape shifting is what evil does.
Ravi need not have become a monster. Though one can’t complete eradicate one’s humanness, he truly became evil. He could have faced the awful split between the good he preached and the horror he lived. Ravi didn’t face the split. He fueled it. Worse, he capitalized on it and in so doing crafted and cultivated profound and awful evil. And did it with conscious intent. This is where he was not just a normal sinner. He did not simply “stumble into sin.” He became Dr Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. He built entire systems of protection for it to function. He made absolute sure his shining goodness stayed away from his secret life of criminal evil.
In the end, He let his shadow self become savage. Truly savage. He abused the glory of God within himself too. He consciously participated in his darkness. Thank God, its rare for a person to welcome the presence of evil so overtly. He roared at his accusers. He raged at one victim, Lori Anne Thompson, for speaking up. He threatened to sue Blue, who he owned a spa with, if she ever spoke up and he made clear she knew he had access to a lot of money. Thank God these women spoke up with courage. The women who suffered from his presence have truly met a monster. A man who let his sexuality exist apart form his heart, who abused his own sexuality to fulfill some ingratiated need for power, some desire for revenge. We may not know.
No Moral to the Story
I am rewriting this ending because I came way too close to creating a moral to this story. But thanks to some really helpful reader feedback, I’ve changed it. This story is just pure tragedy. We must hold it as such and let it move us as stories do. Moralizing stories never goes well anyway.
And let me make something very clear. Ravi did not simply “stumble into sin” like anyone of us could do. Ravi was an evil man. He cultivated and crafted evil with conscious intentionality. That’s far different than simply slipping up. I do not believe all sin is equal or that his sin is like any sin. Intentional, crafted, conscious sin is far worse.
My desire has been to hold Ravi more accountable by saying that he wasn’t just “born this way” as a monster. I was attempting to say he had a chance to be human and he completely chose in his heart to become monstrous, to become truly evil. That to me was a way to honor the darkness of his harm even more, by not giving him a pass as just fundamentally broken. By making him a real person, we make his evil more real.
As always, I hope for this to be a living document, a conversation we can have. I would welcome your thoughts.