from the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, Summer 1993, page 46. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
Two college students sat in my office, stunned by what they had just learned. About ten days after the tragic ending to the Waco saga, the young women were reading a magazine account of the last days of David Koresh's Branch Davidian cult. They noticed photos of two girls who had died in the flames -- friends with whom they had attended the same private Christian high school. They had lost contact with each other when the young women pictured in Time had transferred away from the school in their junior year.
My students were horrified to discover that two people they had known personally somehow ended up in Waco and had become members of an extremist religious group. Suddenly, the story of David Koresh and his followers took on new significance. They asked me, "How could it happen? How could two seemingly normal young adults get involved in something so strange? Is it possible for sincere Christians to get caught up in something so wrong?"
These and many other questions continue to be asked in the wake of the terrible events in Waco and the massive media coverage. If there was any positive impact at all from the Texas tragedy, it was that many millions of people were made aware of what cult watchers already knew -- that cultism is alive and well in the world, and that vulnerable people are still attracted to leaders who claim to be God's messianic messengers.
Unlike the typical cult story, the Waco narrative stretched into weeks. Not since Jonestown (the mass suicide of People's Temple members in Guyana in 1978) had the public been so bombarded with commentary about cultic beliefs and behavior. Even if some of the reporting tended toward the sensational and some of the "experts" quoted lacked appropriate credentials, the tragedy provided an opportunity for masses of people to be reminded that not all religion is benign and that not all who come in the name of Christ deserve the label "Christian."
One aspect of the Waco situation that reporters and other commentators focused on was David Koresh's claim to be Jesus Christ. What they failed to note was that aspirations to messiahship and deity are not all that uncommon in today's world. I reminded several reporters that when Shirley MacLaine, in her film Out on a Limb, stood on the beach at Malibu with her New Age teacher and repeatedly proclaimed, "I am God, I am God," it didn't get the same kind of treatment by the press that Koresh's claims received. Granted, MacLaine and hundreds of thousands of other New Age adherents in North America assert their oneness with God from a different world view than that of Koresh. But are their pantheistic ("all is God") convictions really any less bizarre than his? It appears that our secular culture evaluates claims to divinity very differentially, depending on who is making the claim.
What about the reaction of the Christian church to those who claim to be God? We have no problem recognizing the blasphemy of a Jim Jones when he screamed, "I'm a god and you're a god," or a David Koresh when he convinced his followers that he was Jesus Christ. But, as Hank Hanegraaff reminds us in Christianity in Crisis (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1993), there are those in our own evangelical backyard who are making claims that are disturbingly similar. Should we not be concerned when Benny Hinn proclaims, "I am a 'little messiah' walking on earth," or when TBN president Paul Crouch is quoted as saying, "I am a little god! Critics, be gone!" (pp. 107-12)
Several years after Jonestown, Stanley Hauerwas wrote a powerful essay entitled, "Self-Sacrifice as Demonic: A Theological Response to Jonestown" (in Violence and Religious Commitment, ed. Ken Levi [The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982]). In an attempt to explain the People's Temple experience, he made a profound observation about Jim Jones that can be said now, too, of David Koresh:
His very success is a judgment on the church and on our society for giving people so little religious substance that they could not recognize heresy when they saw and experienced it. Jones was successful because he was able to co-opt the general religiosity of people, legitimated by vague reference to Christian symbols, and to turn that religiosity into a powerful force by putting pieces together in a perverted manner....A people who have lost any sense of how religious traditions are capable of truth and falsity can easily fall prey to the worst religious claims, having lost the religious moorings that might provide them with discriminating power.
In view of the above, both Jonestown and Waco point to the continuing need for discernment ministries (what some have derisively called "heresy hunters") who have the courage to assert that what the People's Temple and the Branch Davidians served was not the truth.
Even more important, these events represent a renewed call to the church to become an effective place of equipping, so that church members will not only gain discernment skills but will also become the salt and light that influences the world (Matt. 5:13-14).
End of document, CRJ0156A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"In the Wake of Waco"
release A, August 31, 1994
R. Poll, CRI
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