In early 1994, about a year after dozens of people died in a fire in Mount Carmel, home of the Branch Davidians outside of Waco, Texas, I went there and wrote a long series of articles for The Kansas City Star about what went wrong.
In short, what went wrong was that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to understand much of anything about the theology driving this small religious sect with roots in Seventh Day Adventism. That failure led federal authorities to do exactly the wrong thing -- use force -- to try to resolve the problem.
Worse, as I reported, if the ATF or FBI had spent no more than an hour talking with members of the religious studies department at nearby Baylor University -- people who had studied the Branch Davidians for the decades that the sect had lived near Waco -- they would have known their approach was all wrong.
You can read my articles in my first book, A Gift of Meaning.
I am glad now to have my 20-year-old analysis confirmed in this fascinating New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell. He does that as he reviews a new book by one of the Branch Davidian survivors, Clive Doyle, A Journey to Waco, which I haven't had a chance to read.
As Gladwell writes, "The F.B.I. . . .expected that the Davidians, like a fragile cult, would turn paranoid and defensive in the presence of a threat. He didn’t grasp that he was dealing with a very different kind of group—the sort whose idea of a good evening’s fun was a six-hour Bible study wrestling with a tricky passage of Revelation. It was a crucial misunderstanding, and would feed directly into the tragedy that was to come."
As I reported in 1994, two religious scholars eventually began acting as go-betweens so the FBI and and the Branch Davidians' odd leader, David Koresh, might understand each other better. And these scholars were convinced -- indeed, they later obtained physical evidence that they were right -- that Koresh would have given himself up within two weeks once he finished writing his interpretation of a key passage of the book of Revelation so the world could read it.
But a couple of days into those two weeks, the FBI lost patience and sent in tanks on April 19.
Gladwell confirms that account of the scholars, too.
The lesson here needs to be remembered: When dealing with people who seem outside the main streams of religion, it's important first to try to grasp their understanding of the world. Without that, trouble is certain.
After the fatal Davidian fire, changes were made in the training of FBI agents so they would become more sensitive to how to deal with people who had deep religious convictions. My hope is that, 20-plus years on, that training continues and has been expanded to people all the way from local sheriffs to the president of the United States -- who was Bill Clinton in 1993 and who, sadly, didn't challenge the way his attorney general, Janet Reno, authorized force at Mount Carmel.
It was a grave error and must not be repeated.
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AN EXPRESS LANE FOR THREE OR FEWER INTERCESSIONS?
A church in Florida now is offering drive-through prayer for motorists. With my luck I'd get behind someone with 143,098 prayer requests.
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P.S.: It's time to sign up for one or both writing workshops I'm offering about getting from pain to hope through writing. The first will be April 29-30 at Heartland Presbyterian Center in Parkville, Mo. For that one you can find all the details you need right here. The second one will be the week of Aug. 11 at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. For details of that class, click here. Come join us.
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ANOTHER P.S.: Do you have my new book yet? It's Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, and I think you'll find it engaging. You can read about it here. If you want an autographed copy, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll tell you how we can make that happen.