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The Boston Phoenix Waiting for the Flames

Waco revisited

By David Valdes Greenwood

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  Lula knew it was coming, even if Janet Reno didn't. Years before FBI agents cannon-blasted nerve gas into the compound at Waco, she warned me that things were going to go badly for the people she called the Shepherd's Rod. Though their survivors call themselves Students of the Seven Seals, six years after their plywood tinderbox of a compound became a national pyre they are seared into our national psyche as Branch Davidians. Since the contested opening shots of the February 1993 raid they have haunted us, but they'd been bothering Lula, my grandmother, for 60 years.

A lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, she had converted my grandfather to the faith at about the time the first Davidians separated from the church. Grammy eyed them with fear and distrust as they hung around the fringes of Depression-era church events recruiting members. Fifty years later, as she raised two grandsons, her paranoia became part of my summer ritual; every year, as we headed to the old-fashioned tent camp meeting in Freeport, Maine, she'd admonish me to keep away from Davidian recruiters hanging around the gates of the campground: "Don't you have anything to do with the Shepherd's Rod!" Then she'd fix her blackest look directly on me and warn: "They're not gonna come to any good end."

On April 19, 1993, she was proved right. But far from feeling vindicated -- and this was a woman who missed no chance to say "I told you so" -- she felt "just sick" at how things had ended. What bothered her was that the billowing flames on her television were evidence of a religion-battering government, a concept that held unhappy ramifications for a devout Adventist. "Crazy as that David Koresh is," she murmured, eyes on the screen, "if they'll do that to him, no telling what will happen to us in the end." What she meant was that the Waco tragedy was the fulfillment of an American prophecy -- an end-time scenario embraced to this day by 10 million Adventists worldwide.

Whether or not an investigation reveals that the FBI used incendiary devices in the final assault, the reality is that the fatal error occurred much earlier: federal agents simply had not taken the Davidians seriously enough to do homework on the sect's apocalyptic beliefs. Had the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) and the FBI truly understood that these people viewed a cataclysmic governmental confrontation as their birthright and hope, they might have realized that their weapons raid would not be an easy operation. They couldn't grasp this specific and most American of eschatologies, born in New England more than a century ago: a scenario in which the faithful, chased by the government into a corner, wait without compromise until God splits open the sky, spilling out angels to defend them -- or let them die.

Bolstered by this fatalistic faith, the Davidians weren't as easily dominated as federal agents seem to have expected. Nor were they as helpless as the current mythology has it. After all, they managed to outblast the agents in the first assault, demonstrating almost military preparedness. That turn of events should have alerted the FBI (which took over the siege from the BATF on the second day) to the poor logic of the initial plans. But even if it had, it was already too late to recover: having made no attempt to understand the Davidian faith, the federal agents were operating at a loss. The only way the outcome could have been different was if the commando raid had never been staged in the first place. Once the Davidians were trapped, prophecy kicked in -- and they were not going to come out of that compound in this life. As Carol Moore, author of the 1995 paperback The Davidian Massacre (Legacy Communications), told me, "The reasons for staying in the compound were both practical and religious. [The BATF agents] were shooting at the doors, for one thing... but David was also waiting to hear what God had to say."

Despite the severity of the initial firefight, the BATF and FBI approached the Davidians with the cockiness of high-school athletes facing weak opponents. Their initial game plan even had, at its core, a public-relations component. The mission was code-named "Operation Showtime"; it was preceded by press releases, and agents videotaped it from multiple angles. For weeks afterward, there seemed to be no change in their basic tenet: the Davidians were a bunch of crackpots, not to be approached with the respect due a real enemy.

A notorious example was a bit of comically pseudo-psychological warfare the FBI tried to employ: blaring Mitch Miller and Andy Williams records in hopes of annoying the Davidians into surrender. Although that tactic had a certain jokey logic -- Texas sheriffs might well find easy-listening music annoying -- it was not an effective weapon in a battle with people of faith, which the Davidians most certainly were. If they had already withstood bullets for their beliefs, why would anyone expect them to surrender to elevator music?

Indeed, even when consulting theologians such as James D. Tabor -- later the co-author, with Eugene V. Gallagher, of Why Waco? (University of California Press) -- FBI agents did not ever seem fully to process that they were dealing with an organized (if unconventional) belief system, or that David Koresh truly believed that he was carrying out the will of God (which led him to break his promises to negotiators to come out). They had no interest in learning about Koresh's greatest theological passion: the "Seven Seals," a set of mystical events leading to the Apocalypse that are described in Revelation, the last book of the Bible.

The FBI's attitude was clear to Mark Swett, a theology student and self-appointed archivist of a vast collection of materials from the Waco standoff. Swett possesses and has transcribed tapes not only of the negotiations, but of the secret bugging done by the FBI (bugs planted by negotiators who were allowed into the compound early on and later concealed in medical supplies that were sent in to the wounded). "The Seven Seals were a constant on his mind -- he was thinking of nothing else," Swett told me. "The FBI were really unprepared for this." In persistently viewing Koresh as a power-hungry charlatan, the FBI ignored the history that made his intentions clear.

David Koresh, like all but seven of those who died at Waco, was a Seventh-Day Adventist before being a Davidian, and his central beliefs go back to the birth of the Adventist church, and before that to the Millerite movement. A farmer and a captain in the War of 1812, William Miller became convinced that the coming Apocalypse, alluded to in the books of Daniel and Revelation, could be mapped out by interpreting prophetic clues. Using this logic, he predicted the date of the physical Second Coming of Christ as October 22, 1844.

Miller preached throughout New England and upstate New York with the vigor of one waging battle, speaking to hundreds of thousands of people, mostly farmers. As the Millerite movement grew and thousands became "adventists," their faith became fodder for editorials and cartoons in Boston papers, which erroneously depicted them as wearing mythic "ascension robes" and waiting on rooftops for Christ's return.

This is where the story becomes folklore for me, the seed of my childhood world, the germ of faith that sustained the people around me. On October 22, 1844, as many as 50,000 Millerite adventists gathered in prayer on farms, having given up jobs and let fields go fallow. When the sun set that day, they kept singing, for the night was only a dark curtain that God himself would tear aside with light. When he did not and the world survived into the awful burden of October 23, a term was born: the Great Disappointment.

Deep faith, faith that runs through your veins, that pulses in your forehead and under your skin, is stronger than anyone without it can understand. Although there were rumored to be Millerites who killed themselves, became atheists, or retreated into the relative safety of less apocalyptic faiths, the movement did not die. Rather, it became one of America's earliest indigenous religious systems. The largest body of faith to arise from that day -- to canonize that day in its history -- is the Seventh-Day Adventist church.

This new denomination had a Saturday Sabbath and a vision of an imminent Second Coming, and a prophet to deliver messages from God. Ellen Gould Harmon White, a teenager when she began her ministry, became the voice of authority for Seventh-Day Adventism. She was an inspirational speaker who traveled all over the world, wrote dozens of books, and was reported to work miracles.

As an Adventist child, one learns the places and details of her spectacular feats and most dramatic visions. (I was fixated on the time she reportedly held a 16-pound Bible over her head for half an hour, with the open book balanced flat on her palm at the end of a stiffly outstretched arm -- not bad for a sickly girl who spent her teen years bedridden.) Just as I once did, Koresh idolized her and pledged (in his 1987 audiotape "Confusion") "to honor the spirit of Ellen White." His last piece of writing refers to White's words as "that beautiful prophecy" -- but he had no such warmth for her church.

When Koresh looked at Adventism, he saw a church that did not adhere strictly enough to White's teachings and, moreover, adhered too strictly to the dogma that she was the only prophet. Koresh co-opted White's theory of "Present Truth," which holds that not all of God's truths were made clear in the Bible, so the revelation of additional meanings must be made manifest in a living prophet. Koresh saw himself and White as being on a continuum; he saw White as the "Third Angel" (a prophetic character described in Revelation) and himself as the "Seventh Angel" -- the one who holds the key to the Seven Seals he was so fixed on.

According to Koresh, the other "angels" (numbered four, five, and six in Revelation) were previous leaders of the believers originally called Davidian Adventists. That church was founded in 1929 by a disgruntled Seventh-Day Adventist, Bulgarian immigrant Victor Houteff. To publicize his new sect and convert Seventh-Day Adventists, Houteff printed a newspaper titled The Shepherd's Rod, which many -- like my grandmother -- mistook as the name of the new religion itself. Confusion over the name notwithstanding, thousands followed Houteff and his wife; twice in the next 40 years, the couple announced dates of the Lord's return, with more disappointment as the natural result.

In the '60s and '70s, another husband-and-wife team with serious God complexes took over the sect. Ben Roden viewed himself on a par with Christ, and his wife, Lois, later announced prophetic visions of a female God figure. Lois's writings attracted a young David Koresh (then named Vernon Howell) to the religion, and she was taken with him, going so far as to ordain him her natural successor. It was during his progression from believer to leader that Koresh legally changed his name from Howell. He invoked the Old Testament kings David and Cyrus (of which Koresh is a transliteration), and proclaimed himself the new Lamb of God.

The Lamb of God, a term from the book of Revelation, is generally accepted by Christians as a metaphor for Christ. But as any Adventist could explain, Revelation offers chilling clues as to the possible outcome of the Lamb's earthly incarnation. In the King James Version (preferred by Koresh), John refers to the Lamb as one "that was slain and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood." In chapter six, the opening of the Fifth Seal (which Koresh interpreted as the raid on February 28) honors the "souls of them that were slain for the word of God" and says the remaining faithful must wait a little while before themselves being killed, which would set off the Sixth Seal, a time of cataclysm, earthquakes, and celestial disorder.

Koresh quoted these passages in their entirety in his final handiwork, a written exegesis of the Seven Seals that was to have been book length. Only one chapter was smuggled out by a Davidian, who left the compound before the fire -- and Koresh died before finishing the rest. But this material had been part of his preaching for months, and anyone attempting to understand the Davidians should have turned to these passages at the outset. (Instead, according to James Tabor, the FBI initially understood Koresh's verbal references to the seals literally to mean sea animals.)

There were more-overt signals that the Davidians expected a terrible ending. According to the New York Times, Bruce D. Perry, chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital, where the released children were being evaluated, had written that the children were drawing pictures of fires and explosions, telling the hospital staff that "everyone's going to die" and "we're going to blow you up."

In her books Early Writings and The Great Controversy, Ellen White painted a picture of the end that provided Koresh with his models: "In the time of trouble, we all fled the cities and villages, but were pursued by the wicked, who entered the houses of the saints with a sword." As a melodramatic child, I was both terrified and fascinated by this scenario; though I had nightmares of being chased by policemen with German shepherds, my best friend and I would play "Time of Trouble," hiding in the closets we called caves, hearts pounding as we waited in the dark for the terror our families had prepared us for. Such a game is less strange than one might think; members of several original American religions -- Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses among them -- believe in apocalyptic scenarios that feature their own persecution and eventual triumph.

White describes a period of persecution, similar to the events that Koresh called the Fifth and Sixth Seals, during which people of all races will be jailed or hiding "associated together in companies... dwelling in the most desolate and solitary places." There, she predicts, the faithful will wait for salvation or martyrdom, noting that "to human sight it will appear that the people of God must soon seal their testimony with their own blood... "

I discussed these parallel scenarios with archivist Mark Swett, who explained that Koresh saw the 51-day siege as leading directly to the Sixth Seal, which could then mean the end of the Davidians' lives. Swett, an earnest student of comparative theology, is clear about what this meant. "They truly expected to be killed, that there was no way to come out. They were just waiting." He points out that, on the bugging tapes, "over and over you hear David and Steve Schneider [Koresh's assistant] asking 'Who wants to leave?' and no one, no one wanted to."

Why would they? For them, the siege seemed to verify some of White's predictions: the faithful (more than half of them people of color) hiding in a barren place where they were cornered by the government. As Jaime Castillo, who survived the fire, writes on his Web site (http://home.maine.rr.com/waco/castillo.html), "David's teaching and actions reflected all that, we believe, the scriptures foretold.... " He goes on to describe the events at Waco as "a fulfillment of prophecy."

Koresh discussed this prophetic period with negotiators, using another term from Revelation: "the Marriage Supper of the Lamb." Koresh refers to the bride being ready to "come out of her closet," which Tabor and others have construed as indicating the Davidians' readiness to surrender. This is a puzzling interpretation, as Koresh taught that those with indifferent attitudes and those who would not come to the supper (i.e., accept his teachings) were to be slain; furthermore, the Marriage signals the end of this world and the beginning of the next. If Koresh truly saw the wedding as imminent, so then was the end of his mortal life -- no time to acquiesce to earthly authorities.

The people best equipped to explain this to the federal agents were, not at all paradoxically, the scorned enemy of Koresh's truth: Seventh-Day Adventists. But to them, doing so would in effect have acknowledged a commonality between their church and the Davidians. Like a parent who has severed all ties with a grossly rebellious child, the Seventh-Day Adventist church understandably does not want any connection to the abhorrent practices of its prodigal offspring. Swett says, "Once things came out, [the Seventh-Day Adventist church] really went to extremes to disassociate themselves from Waco." But spiritual genealogy is as hard to negate as blood, and Adventism factored into Davidian culture until the end.

Koresh felt an obligation to reach out to Adventists (and, to a lesser extent, others) who believed the church wasn't offering them enough. Each summer, there are several dozen SDA camp meetings in the United States (and many more worldwide), where Adventists gather to recharge their spiritual batteries. As far as the Davidians were concerned, these events were ripe for canvassing; it was often from these gatherings that new students were drawn. At such events in England and Australia, many discontented Adventists who had never heard of the Shepherd's Rod or Branch Davidians met the Davidians for the first time, and found what they had to say so powerful that they would leave their old lives behind for new -- and tragically short -- ones with the Lamb in Waco.

While the Koresh era was blossoming, I was enrolled at an Adventist college. Situated along the maple-lined main street of Lancaster, Massachusetts, Atlantic Union College had little in common with Waco, Texas. But among its 30-odd degrees, it offered a BA in theology, and there were always recent SDA converts enrolled. One among them used to pester me to listen to his David Koresh tapes. A fairly new convert to Adventism, he was worried about the church but found the Davidian message appealing -- and he hoped that I would as well. But I was already on the brink of leaving the parent denomination, and I had no interest in anything even more rigid, so I declined. My mind flashed to one of the rumors Grammy had reported to me, that the Davidians lived in a colony of buses. I didn't say this, of course, but I hoped this guy would go live in a bus and leave me alone. I would later learn that the buses, a temporary housing solution during the Roden era, were no longer in use by the time of our conversation, but the image appealingly evoked the fringe, and that's the place these people occupied in my mind: harmless, a little crazy, and nothing of consequence.

Despite the shared eschatology, the Adventist church had always maintained a stance somewhat akin to mine, viewing Davidians as slightly crazy and definitely other. And throughout the siege, although so many recent members of its congregations were trapped inside the compound, the church remained largely silent. Foolishly, the FBI turned to non-Adventist theologians for advice, and the church offered no help of its own.

When I mentioned this oversight to Moore, the author of The Davidian Massacre, she said she wasn't sure that religious understanding would have been enough to change the outcome: "Even if you had negotiators who understood, you're still dealing with the militarization of the government." She thinks the agents were looking for an easy target and, when the siege dragged on, "they just so overreacted."

The FBI's frustration eventually reached lethal heights, culminating in a raging assault that seemed out of proportion to the "crimes" being fought. Children contorted into death curls from the effects of nerve gas, adults were burned black, and at least one body appears to have been run over by a tank. What happened at Waco bears the imprint of what police detectives call "overkill"; if the agents merely wanted to force the Davidians out, their actions seem incomprehensible.

As a result, the Davidians are seen as martyrs, an oversimplification that makes a great anti-government cautionary tale. And yet, the opposing sides had something crucial in common: each went into this battle with a core ideology that diminished the importance of human life. For the Davidians, this mortal life was something that could be sacrificed for heaven; for federal agents, "shoot to kill" is simply part of their vocabulary. The results were catastrophic, and both sides were denied what they wanted: God did not visibly come to save the Davidians, and the world shunned the agents instead of praising them. Never having understood the significance of the Seven Seals theology or how their own actions could validate it, the agents fulfilled the prophecy in the bloodiest possible way, inadvertently vindicating the Davidians' faith by destroying the faithful.

Janet Reno's investigation may clear up the matter of whether the FBI started the fire, but it won't change the fact that the Davidians expected to die there. Livingstone Fagan, who survived the fire, went so far as to say in his sentencing hearing, "I fully support the actions [of Koresh] that were taken at Mt. Carmel. It's unfortunate regarding the consequences."

Even now, some of the remaining Davidians doggedly wait for the next apocalypse, just like their Millerite forefathers, their Davidian predecessors, and their lost Student loved ones. Renos Avraam, writing from prison, calls himself the Chosen Vessel and predicts the Sixth Seal and its cataclysms will be opened with further bloodshed this December. New believers are attracted to his teachings by Seven Seals Web sites (http://www.sevenseals.com and http://www.branchdavidian.com).

Others, loyal to Koresh and skeptical of Avraam's "new light," continue to worship together in Texas, under the leadership of siege survivor Clive Doyle. They and their supporters try to have it both ways: still adhering to the apocalyptic vision of the Seven Seals but denying that this was a factor at Waco (Koresh's own opinion notwithstanding).

I have often wondered about that last day, imagining the combination of terror, anger, and vindication that must have filled the Davidians at Waco. I had grown up hoping I wouldn't break under torture in the Time of Trouble, knowing that any suffering in the end times was the final test before Jesus saved us all, while the wicked begged for the rocks to fall on them and save them from his wrath. I thought about how long I had expected these exact events, and it occurred to me that, as scary as the concept had seemed, it had always been rhetorical, almost a fairy tale -- not a grisly reality.

The same may be true for the millions of Seventh-Day Adventists who live traditional, mainstream American lives. They are clearly not fringe types. They live and work side by side with those of other faiths. They are seen as valuable parts of their communities in the many places where they run hospitals and schools. And yet, it is unsettling to consider that when they say their prayers at night, many of them pray for strength to bear the coming Time of Trouble, which they believe in without question. They tuck their children into bed with the same tales of the end that Davidians told their children.

In the last year of her life, two years after the fire and before Koresh did not rise, Grammy took me out on the sitting porch of the house I grew up in and sat me down for a private conversation. It was a November evening in Maine, night coming on early, and we sat in rocking chairs as the twilight deepened. She told me she didn't think she'd live much longer, but maybe that was best, as she was getting so tired and weak that she didn't know if she was strong enough to face the Time of Trouble anyway. Softly, she said she hoped I was ready for the events to come. We looked through the picture window into the black, and I knew she was seeing the same fearful vision that the Students lived, the nightmare flip side to the American dream. Imagining cannons and guard dogs, bullets and tanks, and then -- at long last -- the end, Grammy held my hand in the darkness, waiting.

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