As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
Every time the sins of a Christian celebrity leader are exposed, a number of familiar responses fill congregational prayers, social media, blog posts and conversations in Christian circles: “Stop putting your trust in people.” “Everyone sins. Even King David committed murder and adultery.” “This is what happens when we put people on pedestals.”
Our responses become even more complicated when the atrocities committed by these beloved figures come to light after their deaths. This has happened most recently with the shattering reports of sexual assault, rape, manipulation, and spiritual abuse committed by late apologist Ravi Zacharias, less than a year after L’Arche ministry released a statement outlining the sexual abuse committed by founder Jean Vanier.
In the wake of such devastating news, we feel the need to present quick and simple solutions. However, when we do this, we avoid the necessary but painful process of grief. We must provide spaces in our faith communities to collectively mourn, to recognize the brokenness within the body of Christ, and to reflect deeply on the damage done. Then we must commit to doing the difficult and complicated work of discerning what it means to build healthy structures that protect the vulnerable, provide accountability to leadership, keep power in check, and allow individuals to speak up against injustice.
First of all, our response to news of abuse, manipulation and violence needs to start with the victims, applauding their bravery and adopting an attitude of compassion toward what they’ve gone through. It is our responsibility to believe survivors, to create cultures of deeper accountability, to learn from the abuses of power we see over and over again. If we were dismissive when the victims reports were still considered “alleged,” this is the time to ask why we might be so quick to conclude people are lying when in fact they are risking a great deal to bring abuse to light. Here’s an opportunity for repentance and growth as we follow a man who blessed the societal outcasts and a Savior who was publicly rejected, dismissed as a liar and fraud.
Then we need to make space for grief. When we deny the deep and legitimate pain we feel at the hands of distant leaders, we, their former audience, might jump to trite and simplistic resolutions. We miss the opportunity to reflect on how we might be part of Christian cultures and trends that are unhealthy and damaging as they provide shelter for the atrocities of our messiah figures.
Responding with, “They’re dead, so they can’t even defend themselves,” is not grief. “Even King David committed adultery—let’s focus on the positive,” is not grief. “All leaders fall eventually. Doesn’t mean they didn’t do good things in the world,” is not grief. Minimizing sin, redirecting our attention, and sanitizing through positive thinking all distract from our grief. We respond this way when we don’t want to enter into the pain of grief, when we feel guilty for supporting a leader who we now see didn’t deserve our support.
Responses like “Trust God instead of people” point to a sort of critique of our affinity toward celebrity. Over and over again we put people into positions of higher worth and value than the rest of us. This creation of superstar Christians (perhaps gods in our own image) is dangerous, and often leads to tragic consequences.
But the “Don’t trust men, trust God” axiom dismisses the reality of how God works among us: through other people. We can and do put our trust in people every day. There is a difference between uncritical dependence and thoughtful, conscientious trust. In order to be the family of God and learn together we must trust each other, all the while recognizing each other’s fallibility and weighing the fruit of each others’ words, actions, and attitudes.
The reality is that while you might never have met the famous person whose books or public speaking affected you, you had a relationship with them. Through their words, videos, public persona, and reputation, you developed a sense of who this person is. That’s not wrong or superficial—it’s what we do as people. We do this with writers we love, activists we admire, historical figures who inspire us, ancestors passed on to us through legend, political figures who champion values we believe in, biblical figures we’ve immortalized. On some level, we know them. We identify with them. We connect with them.
So we grieve when they pass. And we ache when they fall. We need to create room for that. Not just for the anger, the “we should have seen the signs,” and the resolve of “this is what we need to do going forward.” But also for the grief and disappointment, and all we’ve lost in the exposing of hypocrisy, evil, and abuse.
When someone you looked up to does horrible things, you can, and should, mourn. You can grieve who they were to you. You can be devastated that when you see their books on your shelf, books that used to bring you joy or hope or encouragement or peace, now they bring confusion and doubt and anger and resentment. You can be angry at their hypocrisy, that they intentionally took advantage of people and tried to hide the evil they committed.
It is our responsibility, in the midst of our grief, to plan to change our communities. It is our responsibility to create awareness about consent and power dynamics, to teach about the accountability that comes with authority, to provide buffers against the temptation that accompanies success and celebrity, to build ministries that demand transparency and that make it safe to report concerning behavior.
We follow a man who frequently called to account the religious leaders who seemed above reproach. He regularly lifted up and empowered the powerless, the vulnerable, the marginalized: sex workers, children, those living in poverty, those who mourn, to name a few. As we create communities and ministries based on the witness of Jesus, let’s humbly revisit the ways in which we respond to the vulnerable and abused when they courageously come forward with their stories, and provide ongoing, thorough accountability of leaders, keeping their power in check, regardless of how influential and important they are.
To learn more about how we can support victims of abuse and move toward safer Christian organizations, check out these links:
- The Christian Reformed Church’s Safe Church Ministry
- Lori-Ann's Thompson's victim statement
- Mary DeMuth, author of We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis
- Abuse blogger Julie Anne Smith's blog
- Spiritual writer Tayna Marlow's blog post outlining "5 Things Christians Must Stop Saying About Christian Abusers"