Lessons from Waco: Some folks just don’t get religion

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Even after a small stack of best-selling books, Malcolm Gladwell remains what he has long been — a master of magazine-form journalism.

After scores of recent interviews in which he has talked about his return to Christian faith, there is evidence that he plans to focus his talents on topics linked to religion news, perhaps building toward a new book. Count me among those who hope this comes to pass.

On one level, Gladwell’s lengthy New Yorker piece entitled “Sacred and Profane: How not to negotiate with believers,” is simply an extended essay digging into “A Journey to Waco,” by Clive Doyle, a survivor of that infamous day when a small army of U.S. troops and law officials crashed into the Branch Davidian complex outside of Waco, resulting in the deaths of about 80 members of this Adventist sect, including two dozen children.

In the end, however, this is much more than a review. It’s more like a meditation of why it is so difficult for profoundly secular people to understand what is happening inside the minds and hearts of radically religious people. The bottom line is clear: Some people, including lots of FBI leaders, just don’t get religion. I think religion-beat professionals will find this article fascinating.

This is also a meditation on how hard it is to be tolerant of people whose beliefs are radically different than our own (study the treatment of Mormons on the American frontier), especially when these outsiders simply refuse to compromise. Yes, David Koresh was a genuinely strange man, both to outsiders and to many of his followers who didn’t agree with all of his actions (especially the taking of multiple wives). But his followers had a history and it appears that law-enforcement officials never took their beliefs seriously.

Thus, Gladwell writes:

The Waco standoff was one of the most public conversations in the history of American law enforcement, and the question Doyle poses in his memoir, with genuine puzzlement, is how a religious community could go to such lengths to explain itself to such little effect. …

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 were millennialists. Millennial movements believe that
within the pages of the Bible are specific clues about when and how the Second Coming will arrive. They also rely on what the Biblical scholar James Tabor calls “inspired interpreters,” prophets equipped with the divine insight to interpret those clues and prepare their followers to be among God’s chosen. Mormonism began, in the nineteenth century, as a millennial movement; its “inspired interpreter” was Joseph Smith. Jehovah’s Witnesses began as a millennial movement, as did the Pentecostal Church.

Of all mainstream contemporary American churches, though, the Seventh-Day Adventists have the strongest millennial tradition.

Now this article may not appeal to people who are not interested in history, and especially the history of religion in America.

As for me, I have always been fascinated by the Davidians — especially after meeting several, including members of the Roden family when they visited one of my Baylor graduate-school classes on contemporary religious movements in America. We discussed their commitment to pacifism.

Let me share one or two more quotes from this piece and then simply plead with readers to check it out. Here is another long passage that builds on one of Gladwell’s main themes:

Koresh’s focus, like that of many millennialists, was the Book of Revelation — in particular, the difficult passages concerning the Seven Seals. There God is described as holding a scroll, locked by seven seals, on which is written prophecies about the end of time. “Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?” the passage asks. The answer given is “the Lamb.” But who was the Lamb? The question was a crucial one for the Branch Davidians, because they believed that whoever unlocked the seals and revealed the secrets written on those scrolls would set in motion the end of time. …

Koresh’s answer to the puzzle was simple: he was the Lamb. … Koresh’s status as “the Lamb” also explains the nature of the Branch Davidians’ relationship to him. The F.B.I., to justify its decision to bring about a sudden and violent end to the siege, believed that 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. But the Davidians weren’t like the People’s Temple. Doyle’s memoir emerged from an oral-history project conducted by the religious-studies scholar Catherine Wessinger, who 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. Doyle 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 community, was a Harvard Law School graduate with a legal practice in town.

They did not worship Koresh, the way you would a deity. He was just the latest of many teachers, in a religious tradition that dated back half a century.

The Davidians didn’t shun outsiders. If anything, they considered them potential friends or converts in need of hearing the truth.

So why did the legal authorities believe they were so dangerous? The big idea here is one that will be quite disturbing to mainstream Americans, both on the cultural right and left:

Mainstream American society finds it easiest to be tolerant when the outsider chooses to minimize the differences that separate him from the majority. The country club opens its doors to Jews. The university welcomes African-Americans. Heterosexuals extend the privilege of marriage to the gay community. Whenever these liberal feats are accomplished, we congratulate ourselves. But it is not exactly a major moral accomplishment for Waspy golfers to accept Jews who have decided that they, too, wish to play golf. It is a much harder form of tolerance to accept an outsider group that chooses to maximize its differences from the broader culture. And the lesson of Clive Doyle’s memoir — and the battle of Mount Carmel — is that Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different.

By all means, read it all.

VIDEO: The controversial and very brutal documentary, “Waco: The Rules of Engagement.” A review by Roger Ebert.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • rarey4

    I’ll admit it.

    I don’t get cults like the one at waco.


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