A portion of my work is to provide safe places of conversation and prayer for people who have been both the victims and perpetrators of sexually compulsion, and as a result I’ve been giving some thought to the Ravi Zacharias situation. Investigations have shown Ravi had sexually harassed and assaulted women – behaviour that was a pattern, not isolated incidents.
The entire situation has been difficult for a many, many people who looked up to Zacharias, and it has been devastating for those who worked with him. For the victims, his behaviour was life-changingly awful, but they have known about it for a long time, and were largely ignored. The reality that a lot of information was available a long time ago and that it was, for the most part, simply set aside (meaning that the victims were set aside) has caused a measure of soul searching in the church.
One question that I see coming up again and again is how we could have avoided such a situation. Answers are wide-ranging. Some feel that sinful people will simply sin, and there are no ways to guarantee that abuse like this will not take place. Other people want to talk about accountability and the willingness to be honest about one’s failings. Still others want to talk about how toxic celebrity culture is, and how putting leaders up on pedestals is dangerous for both them and for us. All of these are good points, and all need to be thought through. There have also been questions about systems and cultures that allow this sort of predatory behaviour to occur.
One thing I’ve noticed is how inadequate reactions to sex scandals are from both the left and right. Progressives tend to say things like, “Just don’t rape.” Conservatives tend to want to say that men need to take more responsibility for their actions and focus harder on personal responsibility. Both of these reactions place the onus on the individual, but when you are dealing with people who are deeply wounded and looking for a way to feel powerful so they can escape their haunting sense on inadequacy, telling them they need an internet filter or to exercise more self-control isn’t likely to help.
Apparently even a young Churchill managed to steer clear of scandal.
I’m someone who enjoys historical biographies, and one thing that strikes me is that sexually predatory behaviour was rarer in the past than it is now. Some critics will say that this is because it was easier to cover up, or was more acceptable and therefore less remarked upon, or that victims had less ability to speak up. Some of this is true, but if one considers the sweep of history, I think one has to conclude that sexually predatory behaviour was less common in the past than it is now. My thinking here is far from systematic. I might be good if a historian went through and tried to make a real study of whether or not this is really the case.
Assuming that it’s true that there are far more sexual predators today that there were in the past, I think we can point to one powerful explanation – we live in a society that is completely, totally and uncritically obsessed with sex. Our culture tells us over and over and over that sex is a very important path to fulfillment, and that the person who is not getting it on a regular basis is really not a fully realized human being. In such an environment, the person who wrestles with feelings of inadequacy, or shame or a sense of being unlovable is likely to conclude that the solution to his problem is, you guessed it, sex! And the fact is that it can work, sex can make a person feel loved and important and attractive and allow them to ignore all their bad feelings, at least for a while.
Christians can wring their hands and say that it is too bad that we live in a post-Christian society that has become so focused on sex, but the reality is that we are just as bad. For years I heard that if I waited for marriage, sex would be more fulfilling and joyful than it could otherwise ever be. The unstated assumption was that sexual pleasure was still a hugely important human good, and that each person was incomplete until they had made a sexual and romantic match. We had actually bought into the world’s trivial and silly sexual goals, but had simply articulated a different method for achieving them.
This is not to say that the church should not talk about sex. In fact, I think we should be more open about sex, but we also need to be careful about the way we talk about it. When we assume that marriage is the goal of human relationships, we make sex more important than it is. When we fail to talk about singleness as a viable and fulfilling choice, we make sex more important than it is. When a pastor talks about his “smoking hot wife” or stands behind her because “the view is better back here” he is paradoxically both trivializing sex and making it more important than it really is. When we tell young people that they will have better sex if they wait until marriage, we are again trivializing sex and making it more important than it is. As I write this, I think to myself, “Honestly, how did we become so stupid?”
The prophetic witness of the church around sex needs to include the message that it is less important than people think. This cuts two ways – first, for people who are struggling with a sense of worthlessness or brokenness, we can say, “sex will not fix you.” And for people who are single, for whatever reason, we can say that just because they are not having sex does not mean that they are doomed to a life of loneliness or depression. A life without sex is not a death sentence. There is so, so much more to life.