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Waco Logic

Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America

By James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher

University of California Press

242 pp.; $25.95

The self-understanding of a "sinful messiah."

Religious conviction is poorly understood by the folks who shape the patterns of international diplomacy. That thesis is articulated clearly and systematically in an important book of essays published last year by Oxford University Press: Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, edited by Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson. The study of international relations, the essayists insist, is dominated by a "secularizing reductivism" that views religion as a declining force in contemporary life. This perspective has had disastrous results for Western diplomacy. The Middle East provides a good case in point: negotiating strategies that presuppose the universal appeal of a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis of human motivation simply do not work very well with Iranian clerics who see themselves as serving a God who finds utilitarian calculations distasteful.

But the influence of secularizing reductivism is not restricted to international diplomacy. One reason why we Americans export it so readily is that we have a surplus on the domestic front. In Why Waco? authors James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher demonstrate this surplus in dramatic fashion. They argue convincingly that David Koresh and his followers were systematically and tragically misunderstood by federal agents, who made no serious attempt to understand the religious convictions at work in the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidians' Mount Carmel community.

The government's handling of the Waco situation is a timely topic, and this book is a significant contribution to that discussion. But it is also valuable simply as an exercise in theological analysis. David Koresh has been widely portrayed as "the wacko from Waco," a demagogic, fornicating child abuser who provided a pious gloss to what was essentially an egotistical program in group manipulation. Tabor and Gallagher firmly reject this portrayal. Koresh, they argue, was a sincere religious leader with a highly nuanced and relatively coherent theological perspective.

The Branch Davidians "stand firmly within the Millerite-Adventist tradition" of religious thought. Needless to say, that kind of portrayal will not go down well with the leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who were eager to dissociate themselves from the Koresh group throughout the Waco crisis. And in a sense, the more established Adventists are quite right to keep their distance. Koresh took hold of a certain dynamic within the Adventist tradition and carried it in directions that many in the mainstream of Adventism firmly oppose. But Tabor and Gallagher show that the points of departure are important to identify.

Early Seventh-day Adventists developed their scheme of prophetic interpretation by making much of the image of the three angelic messengers in Revelation 14. The work of the first two angels was accomplished by William Miller in the nineteenth century in his announcement that the "end times" had arrived and in his prediction of the imminent destruction of "Babylon." Ellen White performed the third angel's role by establishing sabbatarian practice and denouncing the rituals of the established churches.

David Koresh built on this basic Adventist pattern of matching events in recent history with angelic references in the Book of Revelation. What he added was the insistence that these three angels were a subgroup of the seven angelic messengers whose work is detailed in Revelation 15 and following. The first three angels stand for the events already mentioned, with the next four corresponding to various Adventist offshoot movements: a group who in the 1920s predicted the literal, earthly restoration of the Davidic theocracy in Palestine (thus the "Davidian" label); another "discovery" in the 1950s that Old Testament feast days must be reinstituted; Lois Roden's insistence in the 1970s on the feminine character of the Holy Spirit; and the ministry of Vernon Howell, who, under his new name of David Koresh, saw himself as the seventh angel.

Koresh's prophetic scenario gets even more complicated, with the drama of the opening of seven seals in chapters 5 through 8 of Revelation providing the overarching framework for everything else in the Branch Davidian system; an unfinished manuscript by Koresh on the seven seals is included as an appendix in this book. It is not necessary to describe the details of this theological scheme here. But the very fact of its complexity is necessary to underscore, since it is a key theme in the authors' argument that the federal agents were wrong in their refusal to engage Koresh's theological teachings. Tabor and Gallagher are convinced, for example, that government negotiators missed important signals that Koresh's ongoing interpretation of "end time" developments was leading him in the direction of compromise.

David Koresh assigned an important prophetic role to himself: he was, he insisted, the Lamb of Revelation 5, the one who alone "is worthy to open the seals." Koresh wedded this rather exalted understanding of his own status to a fairly orthodox view about the person and work of Jesus Christ. While Koresh referred to himself as "Christ," for example, he considered himself to be only a secondary "sinful messiah." The messianic figure who speaks in Psalm 40-"in the scroll of the book it is written of me" (v. 7)-cannot be the perfect messiah, Koresh argued, since he also refers to his own "iniquities" (v. 12). From this Koresh infers the promise of a "sinful messiah" who will appear on the earth at the time of the opening of the seventh seal. He saw himself as fulfilling this role by functioning as an interpreter of the end times to his faithful band at the Mount Carmel community as they prepared as a group for an eventual movement to Palestine for the reestablishing of the theocratic kingdom.

Even those of us who would firmly deny messianic status to David Koresh will agree on the "sinful" part of his self-designation. Not the least of his sins were flagrant sexual ones. Tabor and Gallagher do not ignore this dimension of Koresh's life. But they do insist that we temper our judgments by considering, for example, the apparent sincerity (however confused) of his specific religious convictions. Writing before the congressional hearings on Waco, they regard the allegations of Koresh's sexual abuse of children as unsubstantiated-a judgment that influences their overall interpretation of Koresh's role in the tragedy. They also highlight the way in which Koresh's activities were sensationalized by the media, analyzing transcripts from various televised treatments of the Waco situation. It is clear, for example, that Oprah Winfrey, in "interviewing" former (and now disgruntled) residents of Mount Carmel, consistently rephrased what her guests were saying in a manner that distorted their testimonies.

Tabor and Gallagher save some of their harshest criticisms, however, for the "cult busters" who played a prominent role in interpreting the Koresh phenomenon to both the government and the media. Groups like the Cult Awareness Network (can) made much, during the Waco crisis, of what they insisted were clear parallels between the Branch Davidians and Jonestown. Three items seem to loom large on the cult-busting agenda: they offer a generic definition of cult; they insist that cults are a serious threat to our democratic culture; and they advocate strong measures, including aggressive government intervention, to curtail the influence of these dangerous groups.

Tabor and Gallagher critique this perspective as it applies to the Waco siege. They rightly point out that on the typical generic definition of a cult-for example, followers who believe that their leader should not be questioned, a "we-they" mentality, an "end times" outlook, pressure toward group conformity-Jesus and his disciples would have been in big trouble with the United States government.

As they develop their case, the authors offer some helpful observations about the dangers of using the Jonestown tragedy as a defining event for our understanding of the nature of cultic groups as such. They also issue some necessary cautions about relying exclusively on the testimony of ex-members in our attempts to understand a group's character. Developing a psychology of "ex-membership" is itself an interesting project, and this book provides some helpful hints on how to proceed.

Tabor and Gallagher are careful to distinguish the cult-buster mentality from the perspective of conservative evangelicals who also engage in "anti-cult" activities. Unlike the can-type approach, evangelicals typically attempt to refute cult teachings from a theological perspective-an approach, the authors observe, that "has the merits of particularity and clarity."

Fair enough. But there are still lessons for evangelicals to learn from the kind of "particularity and clarity" that characterizes Tabor and Gallagher's treatment of the Branch Davidians. Evangelical writers often work with a rather simple-minded checklist approach to cults. We list the major reference points for doctrinal orthodoxy: trinity, divinity of Christ, salvation by grace alone, authority and sufficiency of biblical revelation, and so on. Then we grade specific religious groups: Moonies get almost no points; Mormons and Christian Scientists fail miserably; Jehovah's Witnesses also fail, but not without answering a few questions correctly; Seventh-day Adventists get a low passing grade; the Vineyard gets a solid B.

Here, on the other hand, is the approach recommended (and exemplified) by Tabor and Gallagher: "the painstaking effort to capture the compelling logic of a particular group's self-understanding and religious view of the world, the powerful attraction it exerts upon certain people, and the abiding sense of peace of satisfaction that many members claim to experience as a result of their affiliation." This way of proceeding ought to be widely imitated. Certainly government agencies would do well to follow this advice. Civil authorities have no business simply presuming that people who join marginal religious groups are helpless robots who have been manipulated by leaders skilled in mind control.

But this is also a wise course for orthodox Christians to follow in our attempts to understand what is going on in a group like the Branch Davidians. This is not to deny the legitimacy of some of our first impressions of the Waco group; nor is it to slip into an anything-goes religious relativism. Was David Koresh a power-hungry manipulator? Quite likely. Was the Mount Carmel community a spiritually unhealthy environment? Certainly. Were the Branch Davidians pervasively wrong in their interpretations of the Scriptures? Definitely.

This does not take us very far, however. I have mixed feelings, for example, when I read about the origins of such groups as the Shakers, the Mormons, and the Christian Scientists. As a card-carrying evangelical, I do keep my doctrinal scorecard. But I also want to find out what spiritual impulses got these movements started in the first place. Part of the answer has to do, to be sure, with various mixtures of delusion and confusion and sinfulness in the minds of the founders. That isn't the whole story, though. On my reading of the spiritual pilgrimages of Ann Lee, Joseph Smith, and Mary Baker Eddy, they were each struggling with at least two important theological issues: They each had found the "high" Father-God of Protestant orthodoxy to be too "distant" from his children (and they offered theological revisions to remedy the situation); and they each insisted that an authoritative prophet-teacher is a necessary supplement to biblical revelation if people are to find religious certainty amid conflicting interpretations of revealed truths.

Not surprisingly (to me, at least), David Koresh was addressing a similar agenda. And like other leaders who woo people away from Christian orthodoxy, he only made matters worse. But for all of that, there is an important challenge here for the rest of us to think very clearly about a spiritually satisfying theology of God's "distance" and "nearness," and about the proper role and limits of a teaching office (magisterium) in shaping a healthy Christian community.

The controversy continues about the government's handling of the Waco crisis. Whether the tragic outcome could have been avoided by informed theological analysis on the part of those who negotiated with David Koresh is an important topic for the debate. This book does not give us all we need to know to settle that question. But it does make a convincing case for the importance of thinking clearly about theology, even very bad theology. Its lessons should not be lost on those of us who want to bring the truth of the gospel to a culture in which agents of a "secularizing reductionism" engage in to-the-death standoffs with followers of self-proclaimed "sinful messiahs."

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


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