by Monte Sahlin
By AT News Team, March 26, 2014
An in-depth feature article about the tragic 1993 confrontation between an Adventist cult and Federal police in Waco, Texas, has been published this week by The New Yorker, perhaps the most famous and widely-read literary magazine in the United States. Entitled "Sacred and Profane: How not to negotiate with believers," it is the first major article in the issue dated March 31 which is being delivered by the post office this week.
The major focus of the article is the miscalculations of the Federal agents who initially attempted to serve a search warrant regarding the illegal sale of firearms by the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists which devolved into a long standoff, repeated negotiations by telephone and eventually a showdown that left 73 dead, including 25 children. It was the largest loss of civilian lives in a Federal raid in more than a century.
Malcom Gladwell, a New Yorker staff writer, has clearly read the many books that have been published about the Waco tragedy, including scholarly collections and the memoirs of survivors and family members. He argues that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents in charge misunderstood the nature of the Branch Davidian cult and the relationship that its members had with their leader, David Koresh.
"The FBI … believed the Branch Davidians were dangerously in the thrall of Koresh; it feared a catastrophic act like the mass suicide, in 1978, in Guyana, of the cult leader Jim Jones and his followers in the People's Temple," Gladwell writers. "But the Davidians weren't like the People's Temple." Based on oral history research, "religious studies scholar Catherine Wessinger … maintains that the People's Temple was an example of the 'fragile' subset of millennial groups: defensive and unstable, and willing to initiate great violence in response to an outside threat."
"The Branch Davidians, however, were far from fragile. They engaged freely and happily with the world around them. [A group member] went to California periodically to work for an audiotape-dubbing company and make money. Other Davidians started small businesses around Waco. Wayne Martin, a prominent member of the [group], was a Harvard Law School graduate with a legal practice in town." Also they ran a small business selling guns and David Koresh would take a few of the young men into town with him on Saturday nights to play rock music in clubs and drink beer.
What the FBI misunderstood about the Branch Davidians, a misperception that proved to be disastrous, was the fact that religious beliefs, no matter how out of line with conventional common sense, "were matters of principle for those within" the religion. "From the movement's beginning, the point of being a Davidian was to be different. … No one became a Branch Davidian if he required the comfort of religious orthodoxy." The FBI failed miserably in this situation because they "dismissed the religious beliefs of the Davidians" and thought "Koresh was a sociopath and his followers were hostages."
The content and character of religious faith must be taken more seriously in confrontations between the cultural mainstream and minority religious communities, the article argues. "The Branch Davidians belonged to the religious tradition that sees Christ's return to earth and the establishment of a divine Kingdom as imminent." They emerged from the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, and "of all mainstream contemporary American churches … the Seventh-Day Adventists have the strongest millennial tradition … formed by followers of the early-nineteenth-century evangelist William Miller."
Koresh did not behave like a manipulative, psychotic cult leader, the writer argues. "He didn't preach. He threw out theories and ideas, inviting argument and discussion." It was the power of Bible study and the new ideas that emerged which animated the group and their refusal to surrender to the Federal agents was in part because of what they believed about end-time events and in part because of the massive show of force that the Feds assembled. A total of 899 Federal agents, Texas Rangers, U.S. Army, National Guard, sheriff's deputies and local police were involved, including two Abrams tanks, 10 Bradley tanks and four combat-engineering vehicles.
The group had spent much time studying Revelation 6 where "seven seals" are described and "the Lamb" opened the seals and revealed the future of God's people. Many were convinced that Koresh was "the Lamb" because he had been able to show them an understanding of the mystifying passage. Even his most troubling behavior, taking on "spiritual wives" from among the spouses and daughters of the group, some as young as 12 years of age, was connected in their thinking to Psalm 45 which "speaks of a great king, anointed by God, who marries many princesses and creates a mighty dynasty that will one day command the world."
"When Bible study is cut loose from the norms of rational thinking and scientific fact it can form the basis for dangerous ideology," an Adventist theologian told Adventist Today. "What happened with the Branch Davidians is a clear example of this, but the mishandling of the situation by the authorities obscures the reality and the lessons that we need to learn. That can cause sympathy for the underdog and cause honest believers to lose sight of the fact that the Word of God must be balanced with reason, as James White advocated in the early years of the Sabbath-keeping Adventists."
It is unclear how this article will be received either among Adventists or the larger world. Adventist Today will report future developments as they surface.