In the March 31st, 2014 New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 1993 F.B.I siege on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the government’s failure to understand the motivations of the group they were dealing with.
Gladwell places the Branch Davidians in “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.”
He also compares the Branch Davidians to Mormons, identifying both groups as actively cultivating a culture of separatism. From David Koresh’s Branch Davidians to Joseph Smith’s Mormons, “countless religious innovators over the years have played the game of establishing an identity for themselves by accentuating their otherness.”
It seems clear to me that modern American evangelicals also fit this mold. These self-proclaimed “defenders of biblical Christianity” perpetuate a narrative of themselves in constant conflict with a debased and immoral culture; it’s all us versus them, the faithful versus the faithless, their sacred versus everyone else’s secular.
As today’s evangelicals continue to self-identify in terms of opposition to society, they find themselves increasingly isolated not only from American culture, but from the mainstream of Christianity itself.
Just as Koresh and his followers retreated to their compound for intensive Bible study and prayerful waiting for the apocalyptic realization of God’s plan, so too are evangelicals now retreating to their ideological enclaves, clinging ever more tightly to legalistic statements of faith, rigid rules, idiosyncratic hermeneutics, and isolationist gate-keeping.
Gladwell faults the F.B.I. for failing to understand the religious motivations of the Branch Davidians. Koresh’s followers weren’t bank robbers holding hostages; they were true believers unable to concede their core religious principles.
Because the F.B.I. couldn’t take the faith of the Branch Davidians seriously, because they couldn’t relate to their zeal and devotion, the negotiations quickly reached an impasse, each side incapable of effectively communicating with the other. Several Biblical scholars volunteered to assist the negotiators, and presented Koresh with “a long, technical discussion of an alternative reading of Revelation.” They were able to converse with Koresh on his own terms, and in doing so eventually convinced him to agree to surrender after he completed his manuscript documenting the message he had found in Revelation.
Three days after this concession (and fifty-one days into the ordeal) the F.B.I. decided to stop waiting on Koresh and ended the stand-off. By the time their disastrous assault of the Branch Davidian’s compound had ended, seventy-six men, women and children lay dead, including Koresh.
Gladwell’s piece is subtitled How not to negotiate with believers. In the current negotiations between evangelicals and the rest of American Christianity, what, if anything, might be learned from the Waco tragedy? Can we all exercise the patience and understanding needed to arrive at peaceful unity between the two camps, which hold such radically disparate understandings of the Bible? Or must our differences lead to fiery confrontation, in which “the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up”? (2 Peter 3:10, NKJV)
Dan is the Executive Editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians blog. He is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has three cats.