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.

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