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Scholars tackle ‘cult’ questions 20 years after Branch Davidian tragedy

Scholars tackle ‘cult’ questions 20 years after Branch Davidian tragedy

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Their apocalypse came and went on a Monday afternoon, 
20 years ago this week.

By the time David Koresh and 75 followers met their fiery end on a prairie near Waco on April 19, 1993, the worst possible image of Branch Davidians was branded on the public mind.

They were fanatics, kooks, cop-killers, members of a suicidal cult or, at best, brainwashed minions of an “Evil Messiah,” as People magazine dubbed Koresh in a cover headline.

Predictions that the Mount Carmel complex would be “another Jonestown” seemed vindicated as the incinerated remains of men, women and children were collected from the rubble of the inferno.

Soon after the 51-day federal siege ended, a Newsweek poll found that three-quarters of Americans supported the FBI’s operation, which culminated with tanks piercing compound walls and tear-gassing the inhabitants, including infants and small 

Years of investigations, lawsuits and public debate would follow about who was to blame for the catastrophe, but few cared to try to crack the enigma of the Branch Davidians themselves.

What did they really believe? What led them to follow Koresh? How much free will did they have during the 51-day siege to stay or leave? Could Koresh and his followers have been persuaded to surrender peacefully?

Scholars at a Baylor University symposium this Thursday will tackle those questions, arguing that fundamental misunderstandings of the Branch Davidians’ mindset and theology escalated a criminal investigation into a catastrophe.

Historians, religious scholars, sociologists and an FBI negotiator from the siege will participate in the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion symposium, titled “Reflecting on an American Tragedy: The Branch Davidians 20 Years Later.”

Speakers will critique the popular narrative that Branch Davidians were members of a “cult” who were “brainwashed” by an authoritarian figure and intent on a suicidal confrontation with government forces.

Students of the Bible

They argue that many of the followers were diligent students of the Bible who found Koresh to hold the key to their questions about biblical end-time prophecies — a preoccupation they shared with many evangelical Protestants.

“David Koresh was demonized in the press, but Branch Davidians were dehumanized, both in the press and by the FBI in press briefings,” said Catherine Wessinger, a Loyola University religion scholar and symposium speaker who helped several surviving Branch Davidians write their memoirs.

“No one saw their faces during the siege. It’s easy to dehumanize a group as cultists if you don’t hear them speak and see they are intelligent human beings who can reflect thoughtfully on what happened to them and on their religious faith.”

The scholars may seem to be walking a fine line: trying to humanize and explain an extreme religious movement without becoming apologists for it.

After all, this was a group that killed federal firearms agents and whose leader, by many accounts, was claiming divine mandate to have sex with girls as young as 10.

Conference organizer Gordon Melton, a Baylor religion professor who is a leading expert on new American religions, said he doesn’t doubt those accusations. He said Koresh should have been investigated for possible crimes and perhaps arrested on one of his trips off the compound.

Nonetheless, he said the Mount Carmel tragedy should stand as a warning of how not to defuse a conflict with a separatist religious group.

“This is going to continue to be an issue we as a nation are going to have to deal with, and we need to get our story straight,” he said.

Melton and Wessinger argue that the view of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was distorted early on by the “cult” narrative, justifying an aggressive response.

“Since the 1970s, the word ‘cult’ has been used to refer to a particular type of group seen as dangerous, isolated and brainwashed and crazy,” Wessinger said. “I would say this is a stereotype that once imposed on a group inhibits the impartial investigation of what a group is really like. That’s what happened in 1993.”

ATF investigation

The ATF in May 1992 began investigating Koresh’s purchases of high-powered firearms and grenades.

Among their first contacts in building the case were Branch Davidian defectors such as Marc Breault, who claimed that Koresh would never surrender peacefully and warned of the possibility of mass suicide, according to Wessinger’s 2000 book, “How the Millennium Comes Violently.”

Breault was among the first to raise alarms about Koresh, including his claim that all women in the group belonged to him as the chosen Messiah.

ATF agents also consulted Rick Ross, a controversial anti-cult “deprogrammer” who had no professional credentials.

The ATF began an undercover operation at the compound near Elk and concluded that Koresh was stockpiling illegal weapons there.

On Feb. 28, 1993, 100 ATF agents swarmed the compound in a military-style assault to serve a warrant on weapons violation charges, despite officials’ knowledge that Koresh’s group had been tipped off. The assault turned into a 45-minute firefight that killed four agents and six Branch Davidians.

A 51-day siege followed, under the control of the FBI. In the first several weeks of the siege, FBI negotiators secured the release of 35 people, including 21 children.

But in the meantime, FBI officials on the scene were split in their approach, said Gary Noesner, the FBI’s retired chief negotiator, who oversaw negotiations for the first 26 days. Noesner is among the speakers at Thursday’s symposium.

He complains that tactical officers wanted more aggressive actions against Koresh and did things that undermined Branch Davidian leaders’ trust in the negotiating team, such as using bright lights and loudspeaker noises to inflict anxiety on the group.

“We found ourselves digging ourselves out of a hole that others dug for us,” he said. “What you’re doing is training a dog to bring you the newspaper and then kicking him in the teeth.”

Possible surrender

Noesner called Koresh a “master manipulator” who could swing from being cooperative to being deceptive. But in the early days of the siege, Koresh appeared to be trying to decide whether to surrender, Noesner said.

“I think we stood a chance of getting a lot more people out, and there was a chance we would have gotten Koresh out,” he said. “He clearly taught an apocalyptic ideology, but the raid against him gave him and his followers cause to say his beliefs were validated.

“Despite that, the key word for describing David Koresh was ambivalence. Part of him was willing to die for what he believed in, but I don’t think he really wanted to die. Some former FBI officials said nothing we could have done that

would have convinced him to come out, that he taught this ending was going to happen. I just don’t believe that.”

Few outside the sect knew exactly what Branch Davidians believed.

When the world learned about the Branch Davidians on Feb. 28, 1993, only two scholars had written about the sect. One was Melton, then a new religions expert at the University of California in Santa Barbara and founder of “Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religion.”

Branded as cult

“At the time, because nobody knows about them, they get branded as a cult, and that ties them to Jonestown,” he said.

Melton also had been one of the early scholars on the People’s Temple, the California sect led by former Disciples of Christ minister Jim Jones. The group built Jonestown, a socialist utopia in the South American jungle, and in 1978 more than 900 ended up following Jones’ instructions to commit mass suicide.

Melton said that disaster set the template for the public understanding of cults, but similarities with Koresh’s group were few. The People’s Temple was a failed Marxist movement that chose martyrdom instead of surrender to authorities, but had no concept of an apocalyptic End of Days.

By contrast, the Branch Davidians had spent half a century trying to figure out their place in the final judgment and the coming of God’s kingdom on Earth.

Victor Houteff founded the original Davidian community in Waco in the 1930s based on the expectation of an imminent apocalypse involving the Second Coming of Christ and the defeat of the evil “Babylon.”

His widow, Florence, later prophesied that Armageddon would take place in the Holy Land on 
April 22, 1959, ushering in God’s new kingdom on Earth. When that failed to materialize, the group dwindled.

It was an echo of the “Great Disappointment” that the apocalyptic followers of William Miller experienced in 1844. From the Millerites came the Seventh-Day Adventists, and from them, Houteff’s Davidians and their successors, the Branch Davidians.

“When you’re in Adventist territory, you’re presented with Adventist problems of the Great Disappointment,” Melton said. “When the prophecy fails, there are those who spiritualize the prophecy.”

Evangelical theology

In many basic ways, the Branch Davidian theology fits within the framework of much of evangelical religion in Texas and the United States today, Melton said.

“What they share is the sense of a plan of history, from the beginning in the Garden of Eden to Christ’s return,” he said. “There’s the belief that we are in the end times and there’s possibly an Antichrist living among us.”

When David Koresh, then Vernon Howell, came to Mount Carmel in the 1980s, he began winning over longtime Branch Davidians with his creative reinterpretations of Scriptural prophecies. He began to claim that he was a latter-day Messiah who would die battling Babylon in Israel but would then be resurrected to establish God’s kingdom.

Clive Doyle, an Australian who had lived for years at the Branch Davidian community, said he had never heard anyone like Koresh, who could “make the Scriptures come alive, harmonize them and make them applicable to this day and age.”

“It was not because he was some kind of gifted orator,” he said. “When I first met him, he had difficulty speaking.

“A lot of things would have been a turnoff to a Davidian. Some kid coming in with long hair and a beard is not something you’d normally deal with. I believe the Spirit worked in spite of him, in spite of the language he used, the lack of education he appeared to have, his looks. . . . You came to evaluate the message rather than the messenger.”

Doyle stayed with Koresh until the end of the siege, escaping the flames with severe burns, while his daughter died inside. Today he leads a tiny group of Branch Davidian faithful in Waco who continue to believe that Koresh was the Messiah.

Doyle was never a part of Koresh’s inner circle, but he said he never knew of any preparations for suicide. He said he believes Koresh was sincere in his offer to give up once he finished writing an exposition of the “Seven Seals” of the Book of Revelation.

Doyle said he doesn’t know whether Koresh ordered the fire that quickly consumed the flimsy compound on April 19, 1993, because he was in another part of the compound. FBI tapes from that morning indicate that Koresh and others were discussing spreading the fuel and preparing to light it.

Nonetheless, Doyle said the FBI’s actions conflict with its own portrayal of Koresh as a “nutcase, a crazy monster.”

“If they really believed that this guy was off the deep end, a threat and a danger, why would you spent 51 days needling him, trying to do everything to him and not expect him to react?” Doyle said. “Why would you take him to the edge of the cliff?”

Melton said he sees no evidence that the Branch Davidians had a suicide pact, nor does he believe followers were “brainwashed.” He rejects the popular idea that a group of people could be reduced to zombielike submission to a leader.

But the apparent role of the Branch Davidians themselves in setting the fire remains a tough question for those seeking to portray the group in sympathetic terms.

“That’s an issue I remain confused about,” Melton said. “It’s one of our open issues.”

Potential threat

Melton said he doubts the Branch Davidians were ever a threat to the outside world. He said the stockpile of weapons was partly intended for defense in case the apocalypse came to their front door, but some of the weapons were also part of a business Koresh and an associate ran.

“I doubt the weapons charges would have stuck,” he said.

The matter of Koresh’s underage “wives” also remains difficult to defend, though Doyle portrays it as part of a biblical tradition of strange commands God gave to prophets as “object lessons” to warn the world.

“You can get into almost any subject having to do with sex and at some point God has countermanded that,” Doyle said.

DNA testing after the fire confirmed that Koresh had impregnated teenage girls, and in 1995, teenager Kiri Jewell testified before Congress that he had sex with her when she was 10.

Wessinger said she doesn’t condone David Koresh’s behavior with girls, and if she had been involved at the time, she might have joined ex-members in raising concerns.

“From our perspective there’s no justification for that,” she said. “They had a theological understanding of it. But here’s the thing: The ATF has no jurisdiction over matters of child sexual abuse. David Koresh’s sexual activity with girls in no way justified putting the lives of children at risk (through the raid). . . . He was at risk of being charged with statutory rape. But none of that justifies the use of militarized force.”

Wessinger said part of the tragedy of Mount Carmel is that so many children’s lives were lost as a result of trying to protect children.

“What we’ve learned from the Branch Davidian case, as well as Jonestown, is that people on the outside who are concerned can sometimes make things worse by overinflating what was going on and getting authorities to take aggressive actions,” she said. “Concerned people can make things worse.”

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