Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America
© 1997 James Tabor
254 pages, including text of David Koresh’s manifesto on the “Seven Seals”
This strangely sympathetic account of the group’s downfall begins with another group in the 1840s, who, following their century’s version of Harold Camping, believed earnestly that Jesus would return to Earth on October 22nd, 1844. These Adventists survived their ‘great disappointment’ on the lack of the world ending; those who kept the faith eventually found other issues to coalescence around, including an insistence that Saturday, not Sunday, was the Sabbath. Certain elements of this denomination grew progressively more estranged from the main current of Christianity, forming an intentional community on the Texas plains that survived for decades, through several successive leaders — one of whom, a woman, would reveal that the Holy Spirit was in fact a woman, and the Catholic church was an insidious plot to subvert worship of the divine feminine by focusing it on Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Branch David took its name from its expectation that when Revelation was fulfilled, the world would hail a new Messiah, descended from the biblical David.
Into this group came young Vernon Howell, later known as David Koresh. He came searching, to pit their claims against his studious knowledge of the Bible and its prophecies. Consumed by a desire to understand the secret truths of Isaiah and Revelation, he flourished and eventually inherited leadership of the community. He was especially charismatic after a trip to Israel, where he claimed an encounter with the Divine. Koresh also became increasing messianic, changing his name to conform to a role he felt called to: the sinful Messiah. Although modern Christians regard messiah as Jesus’ title alone, the word is used several times throughout the Bible, and at one time in connection with Cyrus of Persia, whose name is rendered Koresh. Cyrus was used by God as messiah, called to wage war against the satanic power of Babylon and restore the Temple and the Jewish people to their rightful place. Vernon Howell, becoming David Koresh, believed he was the new messiah: He wasn’t Jesus, but he was called by God to gather around him a chosen few and reveal the Final Revelation to the world. When the Final Revelation came, Koresh would be at one with the Word of God, comprehending the entire Bible as a mystical whole, and guide the world into a new era. This greatness would not come without price; the powers of the world would rise against the chosen few, and even kill them just as they did Jesus, but God would prevail.
Against this figure, whose vocabulary was saturated with references to arcane prophecies, whose days were spent in intense discussions about theology, propagating increasingly esoteric doctrines and practices, rose the ATF. While agents on the ground attempted to talk to Koresh and convince him to surrender, all they heard in response was “bible babble”,not comprehending that just as they were trying to squeeze him into the criminal profile boxes that they understood, so to was he understanding them in the light of his own narrative. Their initial attack on the center, followed by their encirclement of it that cut all electricity and communication with the outside world, seemed to him the fulfillment of the “Fifth Seal”, in which the forces of darkness rise against the righteous. They were playing the perfect villains, convincing him that he was right and that the end was night. So they held out and perished in fire, almost eighty souls.
Tabor’s goal in this is to humanize the Davidians, and it works for the most part. They obviously weren’t too strange at first or on the whole, given how good their relations were with their neighbors: when the raid happened, the Davidians were expecting it, having received numerous tips. Although the ATF and FBI referred to the siege as a prolonged “hostage situation”, Davidians plainly were not under coercive force. They came and left the group as they pleased, drawn mainly by desire to see what Koresh was teaching, attracted by his energy. The fly in the ointment is that by the time the center was attacked, Koresh was in a pecuilar spot, psychologically. He was the chief fixation of attention for scores of people, whose awe at his abilities at arguing scripture convinced him that he was the chosen one. Unrestrained by the fear of social reprisal, his body followed its desires, carefully justified by seemingly rational arguments: bit by bit, he convinced himself that it was just and proper for him to be married to several women, including teenage girls, and father children by them. They were to be the new royal priesthood of the next epoch of human history. The Davidians could have been quirky but harmless even living on a compound by themselves and earning money by selling guns, but once polygamous child-marriage enters the picture even the most sympathetic soul has to say, “…that boy’s off his rocker.”
However, Tabor’s principle object may not be the Waco group themselves, but cults in general. Tabor objects to their being demonized: what modern religion, he asks, does not match the attempts at quantifying what exactly a cult is? He rightly criticizes the agents on the ground for not seriously attempting to understanding who they were dealing with, beyond wacky gun-cultists, but even if the group had been able to send regular messages to the world through the siege, but who is to say they could? The group’s entire bent was occultic, fixated on its elite status. Tabor does a good job at comparing Waco to Jonestown, which was more domineering where its members were. David Koresh may have told his followers that that were called to be celibate (unless David felt a call to know another man’s wife in the biblical sense), but if they insisted on remaining married to one another, they could leave. Koresh’s group was definitely weird, increasingly dominated by the man’s sexual fetish, but from this account they seem more likely just to be a danger to themselves, and especially to their children. Of course, the government’s brutal attempt to force the group to surrender only led to the deaths of most of the children at risk, so the entire episode is an utter tragedy.
Why Waco? has a jarring sympathy for its bizarre subjects, one that struggles to be professional and errs on the side of indulgence. It does make comprehensible the group’s apocalyptic teachings, and can’t help but entertain…but the author’s lack of judgment, even when horror would be appropriate, is unsettling