By Loren Seibold
When the Waco siege happened, I was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor studying in a Presbyterian seminary. I remember my embarrassment at the questions in class the day it happened. I did what the rest of the Seventh-day Adventist church did: denied that the Branch Davidian had anything to do with us—even though they were a historical offshoot of the church, most of them ex or current Seventh-day Adventists, and studied the same prophecies and prophet (Ellen G. White) that we did.
Clive Doyle was one of the few believers to escape the fire in the Waco compound. He’s now written a new book called Journey to Waco. “If people read this account, they will at least gain a different perspective on who David Koresh was, where he was coming from, who we were, and why we believe the way we do,” he says. “Most people think ‘cult’ about us and think we are people who were brainwashed and deceived. They think our church members don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going. Hopefully, my story can open their eyes.”
Indeed, most people do think cult. In a review in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell brings together the literature on the subject to show that almost no one tried to understand Koresh or why people were in the compound. The ATF prepared a response for bank robbers, when they were dealing with quiet, principled Bible students. The besiegers mishandled every step of the process. Whatever paranoia the group had extracted from Scripture (it was centered around an interpretation of Revelation's 5th seal) the ATF’s ham-handed raid reinforced.
Koresh was, to be sure, an odd yet charismatic character, and his taking young spiritual brides was repugnant. But it was all based on Scriptural explanations that most of the compound had accepted. As another Branch Davidianist, Steve Schneider, said, “All of these places talk about a man in the last days that’s a sinner. He can do one thing, open up the words of the book, open up the Seven Seals. Can’t do any miracles, doesn’t raise the dead, heal the sick, isn’t a psychic but . . . if people have questions about life and death, eternal life, no matter what the question is, he will show it in context from the book.” And Koresh could, at least to the satisfaction of his followers.
Conspicuously absent from any attempt to solve the standoff was the Seventh-day Adventist church, its theologians and leaders. At the time, the denomination, always nervous about being perceived as a cult, denied any connection to the Branch Davidian. The theologian who stepped in to try to solve the problem by looking at it through the cultists’ eyes was James Tabor of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He engaged Koresh on his own terms, Koresh even implying he'd turn himself in when his study of Revelation with Tabor was complete. Writes Gladwell, “Tabor and Arnold made a tape—a long, technical discussion of an alternative reading of Revelation—aired it on the radio, and sent it to Koresh. Koresh listened and was persuaded. He had been called a liar, a child molester, a con man, and a phony messiah. He had been invited to treat his children like bargaining chips and his followers like hostages. But now someone was taking his beliefs seriously.”
But the ATF refused to wait even a few days.
Even if you don’t read the book (and much of it is self-serving, as Doyle is still a believer), do read “Sacred and Profane” by Gladwell. It’s a mind-bending exploration of why we don't listen to people who are different from us.