A Lamb and His Tragedy: The Tragic Story of David Koresh
Any union between religion and politics is like a marriage bound in unholy matrimony. Throughout the history of the United States, such relationships have inevitably lead to much turmoil, division or tragedy. One of the most tragic examples was the small Armageddon that occured in Waco, Texas in April of 1993. On this day, Vernon Howell aka David Koresh and the majority of his “Branch Davidian” followers met their fateful deaths in a conflagration that would transpire as one of the greatest religiously-charged tragedies that has occurred on American soil. The Branch Davidian compound was set ablaze while the country watched in horrific disbelief. In the aftermath that would ensue, the question of “Why?” would captivate the minds and hearts of the media, government, citizens and scholars alike. If one were to understand not only the actions of government agencies and the subsequent actions of the Branch Davidians, but also the historical context of the group and particularly Koresh’s theological framework, it is clear there is plenty of blame to be shared among all responsible participants in this quasi-apocalyptic, theologically obscure battle.
A Brief Synopsis
Before centering in on the assertion that blame can be equally shared by all parties, context to this event is needed. On April 19th, 1993 a fifty-one day stand-off came to its end in a burning ‘lake of fire’. To understand this event, one needs to look back to February 28th, when the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) surrounded the Branch Davidian compound under the allegations that the group possessed an arsenal of illegal firearms. With a massive ground force of armed agents and gun-wielding helicopters, the government assaulted a potentially hostile extremist religious group. The exchange of gunfire resulted in five dead BATF agents and four Branch Davidians. The torturous stand-off had begun.
With all sides digging their heels into the ground, and the idea of compromise nowhere to be seen, this stand-off escalated further and further until the final day, when Attorney General Janet Reno authorized the physical removal of the group from their home. The FBI and military shot CS gas grenades (tear gas) into the compound which was supposed to make life unbearable enough that the Davidians would walk out by choice. Several hours later, the government used CEV’s (Combat Engineering Vehicles) to break down certain exterior doors and walls. However, shortly thereafter, fires erupted around the compound and the already barricaded group burned alive. It is still disputed today whether or not the group itself, David Koresh particularly or the government was responsible for the fire. In fact, David Chidester sums up the debate quite clearly in a forum. He states, “On one [web]site you will find that religious fanatics… committed mass suicide when they realized they were losing that war. On another, you will learn that an unconventional religious group… was brutally massacred by a military assault.” (Chidester, 18). Let the blame-game commence.
The Branch Davidians and David Koresh
Kenneth Newport, the author of an article entitled, “A Baptism of Fire” argues that the Branch Davidian group set fire to their own compound, showing this event to be a mass suicide. The physical evidence he points to is that the last CS grenade to be shot into the compound was four hours before the fires erupted. Also, he discusses the testimony of Branch Davidian survivor, Graeme Croddock. He testified that, “he saw a person he could not identify in the chapel pouring fuel” and also “he heard Mark Wendell upstairs shout ‘light the fire!’” (Newport, 67). Also, Newport adds that three separate fires began in three separate places around the compound. However, it is within Newport’s understanding of Branch Davidian theology that he primarily makes his argument. It is clear not only to Newport but to any outsider (apparently except for the government) that the Branch Davidians were compelled by their theology and their complete allegiance to David Koresh. Their entire life was spent in close quarters, constantly studying the Bible and listening to Koresh’s sermons. As Newport states quite plainly, “They were obsessed with it. It ran through their veins. They lived it, breathed it and, in my view, died for it.” (Newport, 65). So what was the theology of David Koresh and his faithful followers? It was utterly centered on the biblical book of Revelation and particularly chapters five and six that deal with the Lamb and the Seven Seals.
The Branch Davidians and David Koresh had an apocalyptic worldview. That is without debate. What does that mean for them though? They thought that the end of days was going to happen in their lifetime. Furthermore, they believed it would happen where they resided in Waco, Texas. In a forum from Religion and American Culture, Joel Martin notes, “Davidians felt destined to be the first wave to enter the Kingdom.” (Martin, 15). They were dualistic and saw themselves as the people of God who were waging war against the evil principalities of the world. The more they were oppressed by the military and government agencies, the more it fed into their theological understanding. Furthermore, adding fuel to the inevitable fire, their view of Koresh himself was what drove them to ingest all of his teachings. They saw him (initially self-proclaimed by David) as the Lamb of God who opened the Seven Seals mentioned in Revelation chapters five and six.
In “Why Waco?” a book written by Tabor and Gallagher, they note, “… the Davidians understood the sealed book to be the entire Bible. Koresh often said he had been sent both to “explain and to do the Scriptures.”” (Tabor, 53). One might object that this makes no sense because the classical interpretation of both biblical and secular scholars alike, attribute the Lamb to be Christ. Koresh would disagree. Tabor explains this by showing that Koresh understood the book of Revelation to be “…revealed by Jesus Christ and written by John and was only to be understood and accomplished shortly before the end of history.” (Tabor, 54). Koresh thought himself that Lamb.
One of the Davidian survivors, a man named Livingston Fagen still considers Koresh the Lamb even after the tragic incident in Waco. He wrote a book entitled, Mt. Carmel: The Unseen Reality in which he unequivocally offers his continued support of Koresh’s teachings. In the article, The Persistence of the Millennium: Branch Davidian Expectations of the End after “Waco”, Eugene V. Gallagher writes in depth about Fagen. Gallegher notes that Fagen says of Koresh, “First of all, only the Lamb can reveal the book, whoever or whatever he is. Secondly, he does reveal the book.” (Gallagher, 307). Fagen was undoubtedly taught by Koresh to view him in such a venerated manner.
Another aspect that cannot be ignored while investigating David Koresh and his theology is his personality. With unabashed vigor, he preached inside the compound at Mt. Carmel with charisma and authority. With his blatant narcissism border-lining on megalomania, one can see that he is constantly getting his people to affirm him with nods and verbal agreement. Furthermore, in commenting on his own “elevated” knowledge, he says, “The president should come to me instead of going to the Vatican. He’d learn a lot.” And again, “Do you want to know the Seven Seals?” (Youtube, David Koresh SERMON). This particular sermon was comprised of mostly biblical references taken primarily from Revelation, Psalms and certain Prophets. It was clear, whether or not one agrees with Koresh’s conclusions, that he was a master of memorizing scripture. With his unquestionable authority in hand, it gave him the ability to have all but total control over his followers.
With their clear view of impending doom and their unadulterated devotion for their leader, it makes one wonder if any other result could have possibly happened at the compound in Waco. Theological beliefs coupled with outside resistance truly brought about the apocalypse they were looking for. Catherine Wessinger notes, “Davidians believed that Koresh’s interpretations of the Seven Seals prophesied the catastrophic events of the endtime leading to final judgment.” (Wessinger, 124). It really does beg the question, in the midst of the fifty-one day standoff: Did Koresh play on the fears and devotion of his followers the fact that the military was pressing in on them was a sign of the apocalypse? The world will probably never know for certain.
A Reckless Government
Another side to the blame debate can be explained by Stuart Wright. In his article, “Revisiting the Branch Davidian Mass Suicide Debate”, he shows that there is also significant evidence to suggest that the use of the CEV’s and the contact between them and metal parts of the compound was what ignited the gas that led to the fire. He notes, “…the first indication of a fire was observed at 12:07 in the second floor window… less than two minutes after a CEV breached that area of the building.” (Wright, 8). He details about the chemical reactions of the tear gas grenades and how those chemicals being present in the air would have spread the fire so quickly if in fact the ignition had been caused by the CEV. He ultimately concludes that the government is to blame for this tragedy. He says, “The Branch Davdian case has been hampered by false or misleading statements from federal officials, lost, mishandled, or concealed evidence and suppression of evidence through extensive redaction of official reports.” (Wright, 14). Wright, significantly more than others paints the U.S. government in a style resembling John’s depiction of Rome and the Great Whore in Revelation. It’s as if Wright is saying that just like that Whore, the U.S. government was “Drunk off the blood of the saints.” (Rev. 17:6).
Another aspect of the BATF’s initial raid should also be further understood. It was reported that the BATF was there with a warrant to search for illegal weaponry. At least that is what the media and government reported. The story they wanted the American people to read was that the government was merely doing its job to protect its citizens. However, there are other reasons that the government had interest in the Branch Davidians, namely child abuse. There were allegations that children were being physically abused and that minors were being forced to have sex with David Koresh. James Wood, in his short article rightly notes that, “While the charge must be regarded as a serious one, the BATF has no authority in this area. In fact, child abuse is not under federal jurisdiction.” (Wood, 1).
The reason this factor is important, is because it shows how the Branch Davidians were painted by the government and media even before the initial violence. The supposed “arsenal” gave the government probable cause, however the true driving force behind the intentions of the government were fueled through a moral lens. This inevitably led to the media spinning the coverage of the Branch Davidians at first into a mass suicide. The apocalyptic narrative was written and the majority of the American citizens ate it right up. Even president Bill Clinton stated four days later, “I do not think the United State government is responsible for the fact that a bunch of fanatics decided to kill themselves.” (Chidester, 24). This goes to show that apocalyptic narratives, whether they the book of Revelation in the second century or even apocalyptic interpretive modern day rantings of the Branch Davidians, can and usually are manipulated to suit the desires of the powers that be.
History: Where Did They Come From And Why Does It Matter?
One further consideration for this event happening is how Branch Davidian history led to an inevitable outcome.. One can find the roots of this group in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. It ought to be mentioned that the Seventh Day Adventists were also, like the Branch Davidians, a very millennial-minded group who took a literal approach in their interpretation of Scripture. A man named Victor Houteff, originally an Orthodox turned Seventh Day Adventist branched off from his church in order to reform it in 1929. He selected a piece of land in Waco, Texas and moved there in 1935 and gave his new home the name of Mt. Carmel. After his death in 1955, his wife Florence assumed authority and moved the group ten miles east to New Mt. Carmel. After that, the classical Davidians evolved further. A man named Ben Roden and his family then led the group from 1960-1987. Enter the will of David Koresh. William Pitts, a professor at Baylor University notes that this was the clearest shift in Branch Davidian teaching and the beginning of a typical millennial understanding of Scripture to an apocalyptic one. He states about Vernon Howell (David Koresh), “Howell radicalized the movement’s millennial teaching… His vision of Christian teaching was not based on familiar gospel teachings of love for neighbor… but rather on a titanic apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil.” (Pitts, 100). In essence, one could argue just given the historical context, that the Branch Davidians were destined sooner or later to come into some type of cataclysmic event. Their leader more than anything else craved this.
Sympathy for the Devil
Given all the debate that surrounds the Branch Davidians and David Koresh, it is a relief that some protestant Christians, who undoubtedly disagree with Koresh’s theology, can both learn lessons and find sympathy regarding this event. This should not surprise anybody though. The religiously minded people understand one thing that government officials, BATF agents, secular scholars and droves of people who are glued to the media machine do not. They empathize with the weight of faith. They understand that even though something cannot be proven or even comprehended, it does not automatically nullify its potential for truth. In fact, sometimes it only makes faith grow stronger. Michael Barkun, in an article entitles “Reflections after Waco: Millenialists and the state” remarks,
“The single most damaging mistake on the part of federal officials was their failure to take the Branch Davidians’ beliefs seriously… However absurd the system might seem to us, it does no good to dismiss it. Ideas that may appear absurd, erroneous or morally repugnant in the eyes of the outsiders continue to drive believers’ actions.” (Barkun, 596).
Had the FBI agents allowed religious leaders or religious scholars access into the negotiations to help sift through the complexities of Koresh’s theology, would this event have transpired? No one will ever know. However, empathy can go a long way in starting and continuing a dialogue, even among the worst of enemies.
Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this whole ordeal is the fact that very few who write about Waco actually write about the book of Revelation. And those who do write about Revelation only talk about the importance of knowing a pre-millennial, often dispensational, apocalyptic theological framework while looking at the book. This is a grave mistake and it continues to not only plague the study of the Branch Davidians, but also most every protestant church in the United States. People misunderstand its historical place in time, its wrongful use throughout the history of Christendom, and its actual theological purpose. Countless books and articles have been written about not only the Branch Davidians but also the supposed systematic theology of Revelation. However, a better synopsis of the book can be found. Craig L. Nessan, a teacher at Wartburg Theological Seminary wrote an article, “When Faith Turns Fatal: David Koresh and Tragic Misreadings of Revelation”. He says,
“Clearly there are important lessons to be learned from the Book of Revelation- about perseverance, resisting idolatrous claims of government, about hope for resolution of history. But these are lessons only learned by careful study of the book in its original context. Those who employ the book to make magical predictions about current events and God’s imminent intervention to end history not only distract energy away from addressing the world’s problems but feed a religious mindset which is susceptible to the machinations of David Koresh.” (Nessan, 198)
Barkun, Michael. “Reflections after Waco: Millenialists and the state”, Christian Century 110, no. 18 (1993): 596-600.
What I truly appreciated about this article was that it was written by a Christian with common sense and sympathy. More than the others, he gave a very fair interpretation of the events that happened at Waco through the perspective of faith. His entire article focusses around the fact that the lack of religiously-minded faith-based people outside of the compound during negotiations contributed a lot to the outcome. He notes further that the gravest mistake on the part of the federal government and law enforcement officials is that they did not take the Branch Davidians faith seriously. Rather, they chalked it up to a fanatical group that got what they asked for. I appreciate that someone of faith who disagrees with the theology of David Koresh still has sympathy for how great a part faith plays in one’s life.
Foster, Lawrence; Martin, Joel W.; Chidester, David; Ammerman, Nancy Tatom, “Interpreting Waco”, Religion and American Culture, 8, no. 1 (1998): 1-30
This was a useful article because it took the perspectives of many different people all at once. While I only quoted directly one author in my paper, all of them had good things to day. However, David Chidester was the most useful. He pointed out very astutely how polarized the fire at Waco was within the media and political spheres. One can do a basic google search and the websites they find are very different given the perspective of the author. The only thing in common with all of them is that their opinions tend be very extreme. These websites either deem the Branch Davidians a group of psychotic fanatics and their leader a manipulative authoritarian or they label the federal government as a group of murderous brutes. I also appreciated that he noted President Bill Clinton’s response to the tragedy which was extremely heartless and cold.
Gallagher, Eugene V. “The Persistence of the Millennium: Branch Davidian Expectations of the End after “Waco”, Nova religio, 3, no 2 (2000): 303-319
Eugene Gallagher’s article was fascinating because it was a source that looked at the Branch Davidians after the tragedy happens. Even though very few survived there were still some that went on to believe what they always had and even write books of their own. He discusses two primary people, Livingstone Fagen and another anonymous author who identifies himself as “The Chosen Vessel”. They interpreted the events of Waco as if they were supposed to happen in that way. The nameless author evolved Koresh’s theology and branched off into other thoughts about Revelation and the Seven Seals. Fagen on the other hand stayed very true to David Koresh and still further considers him as the Lamb mentioned in Revelation. I found it interesting because one would think that after a tragedy like Waco the remaining followers would end any sort of belief they had about Koresh being some sort of Messiah.
Newport, Kenneth g c. “a baptism by fire”: the branch davidians and apocalyptic self-destruction”, Nova religio, 13, no 2 (2009): 61-94
Kenneth Newport’s article was very helpful in understanding why people consider the tragedy at Mt. Carmel to be a mass suicide. He gives a great detail of evidence that supports this theory. Not only is there physical evidence of when and how the fires started in relation to the tear gas chemicals that were used and how it interacted with the flames, but he considers the Branch Davidians’ theology as well. He notes quite often that because they had an apocalyptic understanding of the world around, it stands to reason that when they were initially attacked by the BATF, that it fed into their understanding that the end was near. He also points out that it was possible that this was exactly what the FBI intended: For the Branch Davidian’s to finally self-destruct and take their lives.
Nessen, Craig L. “When Faith Turns Fatal: David Koresh and Tragic Misreadings of Revelation”, Currents in Theology and Mission, 22, no. 3 (1995): 191-199
Craig L. Nessen’s article was especially useful for me in thinking about different types of interpretation people use when reading the book of Revelation. He points out rightly that the main cause for misreading this text is that people use it as a magic book. They read into Revelation the world around them instead of taking Revelation as it is. It is a book written almost 2000 years ago in a very specific context for a particular group of people. It is not, nor should it be read as a book that is supposed to describe current events in in history. Sadly, most people do not even read the history surrounding this book, but rather the religious jump into head first and mold their world view to suit their eschatological desires.
Pitts, William L. “The Davidian Tradition”, Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, 22, no 4 (1993): 99-101
I used William Pitts’ article primarily to gain access into Branch Davidian history. Pitts gives a very concise but thorough introduction as to where the Branch Davidians came from. He notes that they were a split-off church from the Seventh Day Adventists which helped give me further insight into their baseline theology and style of biblical interpretation. He further goes on to explain the drastic changes that took place between the leadership of Ben Roden and David Koresh. The change in leadership marked the inception for what would happen that fateful day in Waco, Texas a mere seven years later. He also talks about the control Koresh had over his group and the sexual exploits that Koresh committed with several of the women in the compound. I did not have space to write about this subject in my paper, but it is a fascinating part of the story that should not be overlooked in one’s bigger study of the personality of David Koresh.
Tabor, James D. “Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America” (Berkley and Los Angeles California: University of California Press, 1995) 53-54
The parts of this book I read were fascinating. James Tabor delves deep into Koresh’s theology and how he interpreted Scripture. It was difficult to understand at times, but useful nonetheless. He helps someone understand that the book talked about in Revelation five when the Lamb opens the seals is actually the entire Bible. Given this interpretation it allowed Koresh to twist the Scriptures to his liking. Koresh proclaiming himself to be the Lamb opening the book made his interpretation the final authority of what is to be considered the correct understand of the Bible. I will without a doubt one day read this book in its entirety. The author writes clearly about the subject and obviously shows passion and sympathy for the events that happened at Mt. Carmel and how one ought to understand the twisted mind of David Koresh.
Wessinger, Catherine Wessinger. “Understanding the Branch DavidianTragedy”, Nova religio, 1, no. 1 (1997): 122-138
Just like Kenneth Newport, Catherine Wessinger takes the side that the Branch Davidians committed mass suicide. Her article was helpful especially when compared to Wright’s and Newport’s. Her writing took a clearer tone and it did not get bogged down in the details. She spoke more generally of the Branch Davidians and even at times appealed to human psyche in order to get a clearer understanding of why the event happened. She interacted a great deal with Newport, which made this research more enjoyable and easily accessible. If one were to read all three articles it becomes a conducive set of work that gives a very fair presentation of the David Koresh and his people. She helped me further understand that it is possible that because the Davidians were feeling oppressed, it only fed deeper into their notions of living in the apocalypse.
Wood, James E, Jr. “The Branch Davidian Standoff: An American Tragedy”, Journal of Church and State, 35, no. 2 (1993): 233-240
Wood’s article was the first one I read. It is very short, concise but was helpful in my framing the situation at Waco before I got bogged down in all the gritty details. He explains very clearly the reasons that led up to the initial siege and the subsequent actions of law enforcement thereafter. His bias against the federal government is clearly seen in his article, however he admits it outright. He spends several paragraphs discussing the initial allegations of illegal weaponry and possible child abuse. He then frames his argument around the fact that child abuse allegations are not in federal jurisdiction but rather the state is responsible. He also speaks briefly about the Branch Davidian movement and where it originated from. He ends his article concluding that any government agency targeting a religious group due to unconventional lifestyles or unpopularity is clearly a violation of church and state.
Wright, Stuart A. “Revisiting the Branch Davidian mass suicide debate”, Nova religio 13, no. 2 (2009): 4-24
Stuart Wright along with three others was published together in a very long article. His article in particular was helpful for me in understanding what physically happened at Waco. He took the side that it was the governments fault this tragedy happened and it was a perspective I greatly appreciated learning about. He goes into great depth about the chemistry required for such a huge fire to happen so quickly around the complex. His article was used with Kenneth Newport’s. Wright considered their points of view and argued against their claims. This article more than any of the others, shows a very sympathetic view for the Branch Davidians. It also argues that they were largely innocent. Wright at times can become apparently biased, but his writing was effective in helping me consider all sides of the story.
Youtube, “David Koresh SERMON”, Last modified April 16, 2014. Accessed January 10, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bn2KnnqeyiY
This video was very interesting. Actually finding footage of David Koresh giving sermons is not an easy endeavor. There are a plethora of audio tapes, which at times are very hard to understand, but this video shows David Koresh very clearly. It does not give the audience a great deal of understanding into his theology; however it shows his charisma and authority in perfect clarity. It also shows the way people looked him. People can be seen truly engaged with his teachings even though at times they sound ridiculous or even impossible to comprehend. There are times that David even comes off as sort of the stereotypical redneck with the language he uses. Overall, this video gives a face to the leader. He comes off very kind and passionate which makes it difficult to put the label of “cult-leader” on him. I’ve heard way more passionate sermons in my life than this one. Koresh’s authority and leadership is very subtle but very effective.