National Edition

Lesson from Waco: Religion matters when dealing with the nonconventional

Published: Thursday, April 18 2013 10:05 p.m. MDT

Fire engulfs the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993. Eighty-one Davidians, including leader David Koresh, perished as federal agents tried to drive them out of the compound. A few weeks earlier, four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were slain in a shootout at the site, and six cult members were found dead inside.


Ask anyone to recall the tragedy at Waco, Texas, and one of three story lines emerges from the standoff between a religious sect and federal authorities that ended 20 years ago today in an inferno that killed 76 men, women and children.

One story line is that of an evil cult of bad people who got what they deserved. Another describes a government conspiracy to wipe out freedom-loving believers. And a third focuses on a megalomaniac who leads his followers to their deaths.

But to the religious scholars and historians who continue to research the tragedy, the truth is more nuanced and complex. "You start studying the events surrounding the standoff at Mt. Carmel and each of those (three) stories falls apart fairly quickly," said Gordon Melton, a professor of religious history at Baylor University in Waco.

While many religious scholars have differing interpretations of the event, they agree that Waco remains the case study on how religious literacy is critical to peacefully enforcing the law in a pluralistic society, whether dealing with apocalyptic groups like the Branch Davidians or the polygamous FLDS.

"Waco let (government authorities) know that religion matters and how people react based on their religious beliefs needs to be taken into account," Melton said.

Imminent surrender?

To the FBI, the religious ramblings of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh were gibberish and inconsequential. They had Koresh and about 100 of his followers, whom they suspected of child abuse and possessing illegal weapons, surrounded and were convinced government firepower and intimidation would force a surrender.

Across the state in Houston, Phillip Arnold, a religious studies scholar with an expertise in unconventional faiths, watched with concern and interest as the drama unfolded from a Feb. 28, 1993, raid on the compound that turned into a shootout claiming the lives of four federal agents and six Branch Davidians into a tense armed standoff drawing international media attention.

Arnold wasn't immediately familiar with the Branch Davidians, but from what was being reported he quickly deduced they were an apocalyptic splinter group from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. But Arnold was certain the government had no idea who it was dealing with.

"They kept calling this a hostage situation. But these people were protecting their home. They didn't want to leave," Arnold said.

Arnold would later write that the Branch Davidians' resistance wasn't a matter of guilt or innocence with regard to the law, but an unshakable belief that only God could tell them when to leave. "Obedience to God was more important to them than submission to human authority — when the two were in conflict, God was to be obeyed."

After conferring with colleague and fellow scholar James Tabor at the University of North Carolina, Arnold traveled to Waco to offer his help to authorities negotiating with Koresh. At first rebuffed, Arnold was able to leave his card. He eventually got a call from an FBI negotiator perplexed by Koresh's fixation on the seven seals mentioned in the New Testament book of Revelations.

Working with Koresh's attorney, Arnold said he and Tabor persuaded the Branch Davidian leader that the end times were not imminent and that he had time to write what would be another testament to the Bible. Most importantly, Koresh had agreed to surrender after penning his epistle expounding on the meaning and timing of the seven seals, events that mark the apocalypse and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Koresh had reneged on previous promises to surrender. But Arnold believes Koresh would have made good on his promise this time. He has since analyzed taped conversations with negotiators and talked with survivors, including one who salvaged a disc with the beginning of what Koresh had wanted to write.

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