Baylor University Reflects on the Waco Tragedy after 20 Years
by Makala Coleman
“Learning only comes from reflection,” said William Bellinger, chair of the religion department at Baylor University. “The Book of Ecclesiastes says there are all kinds of days that come from our Creator, days of prosperity and days of adversity. We have to reflect on them all.”
Last week (April 18), Baylor University hosted a conference on the theme, “Reflection on an American Tragedy: The Branch Davidians 20 Years Later.” It focused on a better understanding of what took place at the Mount Carmel compound near Waco in 1993, emphasizing historical and cultural perspectives. Baylor is a Baptist institution and one of the major centers for research about contemporary religion in America.
In the incident 20 years ago a group called the Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventists, led by David Koresh, resisted Federal and Texas state law enforcement officers with gunfire. The standoff lasted from February 28 to April 19. Koresh believed that he was the mouthpiece of God, not that he was Jesus reincarnated, but that God spoke through him.
It began with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) attempting to raid the Branch Davidian compound. ATF agents believed that weapons were being stored in the complex. Ten people were killed in an exchange of gunfire. Four of them were ATF agents, the rest were Branch Davidians. After 51 days with the Branch Davidians barricaded in their compound, the siege ended tragically when a tear gas attempt to force people out of the buildings turned into an engulfing fire that killed another 76 men, women and children.
For some people, this historical event is remembered as if it took place yesterday; and in some situations, remembered with a bias. This conference was convened to help people look at the tragedy with an open mind. It’s intention was to help people understand what happened and why. Understanding these things can help prevent this type of event from recurring in the future.
Religion scholars, FBI agents, historians and others spoke. Two survivors from the tragedy also attended and answered questions. “No matter who you are, you can share insight,” said Phillip Arnold, founder of the religion crisis task force. “If we imagine our own participation in an event, we can have a point of contact. You must have objectivity and see from a different worldview than your own.”
With so many different people, it’s no surprise that not all were on the same page. Some had conflicting views, but all were honest with what they knew to have taken place that day. Many of the speakers were directly involved with the incident.
The conference began by pointing out that the Branch Davidians, the Federal agents and everyone involved with the tragedy were human. They were not necessarily evil, just fallible as every person is. “The folks at Mount Carmel were our neighbors,” said J. Gordon Melton, professor of American religious history at Baylor University and editor of the standard reference on religious denominations. “They were good people, everyday people. They were no stranger than I am. People at Mt. Carmel were trying to find out what the Bible means and see how it fits in the big picture. It’s the same thing that we do at church today.”
The Branch Davidians faced a dilemma in their faith. “They loved life, but they believed then that for theological reasons they must obey God and do what he wanted them to do,” said Arnold. “And what they believed was the voice of God (Koresh) was telling them to stay.”
Speakers included Melton; Arnold; Matthew Wittmer, documentarian; Catherine Wessinger, professor of religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans; Gary Noesner, retired chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation crisis negotiation unit; Stuart A. Wright, professor of sociology at Lamar University; and Philip Jenkins, professor of history at Baylor.
The Branch Davidians formed in the 1930s out of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They shared the Adventists' interest in Bible prophecy and a respect for the gift of prophecy exercised by Ellen G. White. During the 1993 events in Waco, Adventist Church leaders tried to separate the denomination from the Branch Davidians in the public mind. They did not want the Adventist Church to be associated with what was called a dangerous cult. Law enforcement guarded some Adventist church services to protect congregations from harassment by the media and others.
The question has been raised, should the Adventist Church have done more to be involved in helping people get out of that compound? Although the denomination had a legitimate reason to not want to be mistaken for the Branch Davidians in the public mind, could Adventists, with an understanding of prophecy, have helped negotiators better understand the thinking of the Branch Davidians and possibly saved more lives?
The conference at Baylor mentioned the Adventist Church only once or twice, in passing. There was one reference to Ellen G. White. The denomination was never compared to or lumped together with the Branch Davidians.
Throughout the different presentations there was one common theme: It is important to treat all people fairly. In the news in 1993 the Branch Davidians were often called a “cult.” In a way, that label softened the tragedy of their deaths for the onlooking public. On the other hand, Federal agents were accused of restricting freedom of religion. Under the heat of conflict and even in contentious debate, it can be difficult to remember the Christian principle that no matter what belief a person holds, or what a person does, each person must be treated with respect and kindness.
Makala Coleman is a reporter for Adventist Today and a journalism student at Southwestern Adventist University.