a column from the Christian Research Journal, Spring/Summer 1994, page 5. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
Controversy Still Smolders a Year After Waco Disaster
Bitter regrets, unanswered questions, and legal wranglings are nearly all that remains of the Branch Davidian tragedy. Almost every other trace of what took place between February 28 and April 19, 1993 on the outskirts of Waco has vanished, thanks to time, bulldozers, and the strong winds that blow daily across the lonely flatlands of east Texas.
Few events in the nation's recent history have so charged emotions and divided public opinion as has the Waco disaster. Debates on issues ranging from religious freedom and government conspiracies to gun control sprang from the incident like water from a broken dam, swelling to a flood of newspaper stories, television specials, and courtroom dramas.
The bloody saga began in February 1993 when armed agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) raided the isolated compound of the Davidians, an apocalyptic cult whose leader, David Koresh, had dubbed himself the "Son of God." Federal authorities stormed their fortress on grounds that the cult had stockpiled an enormous cache of illegal weapons. To the Davidians' prophecy-gorged minds, however, the intruders had come to fulfill a different destiny: Armageddon.
The confrontation exploded into a nightmarish gun battle that left five Davidians and four BATF agents dead, 20 other BATF agents wounded, and bewildered government forces in retreat. Then came a 51-day standoff that pitted government might against religious fanaticism in a deadly game with no rule book.
In April of that year Attorney General Janet Reno approved the use of tanks and tear gas to force an end to the siege. Law enforcement officials assumed cult members would surrender. Instead, numerous fires -- now believed to have been started by one or more unidentified cultists -- suddenly swept without mercy through the Davidian compound. Only nine cult members escaped, and Koresh and 80 of his followers -- including 25 children -- perished.
Backlash. Cries of outrage over the government's handling of the situation arose almost immediately. National headlines such as, "The Feds Really Blew It in Waco Raids," reflected the sentiments of more than a few Americans. In response, the Clinton Administration ordered two investigations: the Treasury Department reviewed the initial BATF raid, while the Justice Department assessed the FBI's management of the standoff.
The Justice Department report, released October 8, 1993, did little more than note that law enforcement officials were to be faulted for their ignorance of the cult's philosophy and activities. One of the report's detractors called it "uncritical in the extreme." No senior officials were judged at fault for the decision to attack the Davidian compound on the siege's final day.
But the Treasury Department review, released a week earlier, reached much harsher conclusions. It blamed the outcome of the initial raid on lax supervision by senior BATF officials and serious mistakes by inexperienced field commanders. The blistering report also charged BATF officials of lying to investigators and the public in an attempt to cover up errors that had been made.
Acquitted of Murder. Eleven Branch Davidians -- five of whom had escaped the April 19, 1993 fire -- went on trial on December 10, 1993 in San Antonio, Texas for a variety of crimes. On February 26, all 11 Davidians were acquitted of the most serious charges (murder and murder conspiracy), although only three -- Woody Kendrick, Clive Doyle, and Norman Allison -- were completely exonerated. The remaining defendants were convicted on such lesser charges as conspiracy to unlawfully manufacture and possess machine guns, aiding and abetting Koresh in unlawful possession of firearms, firearms violations (i.e., using or carrying a firearm in commission of a violent crime), possession of a grenade, and voluntary manslaughter.
At press time, the sentencing of the convicted Davidians -- each facing five to thirty years in prison -- had been scheduled for June 16 and 17.
Unresolved Questions. Though the Davidian trial produced more than 130 witnesses and nearly 1,500 pieces of evidence, numerous questions remain. One mystery the trial left unsolved involves the initial BATF raid. Most eyewitnesses, including newspersons present during the botched operation, say the Davidians fired first. Others insist it was the BATF. No conclusive evidence supporting either contention is known to exist.
Also unanswered are questions surrounding the FBI strategy employed during the siege. Who ordered the use of psychological warfare against the Davidians? Why was Koresh not given more time to come out? What caused the FBI to cut off negotiations with Koresh just when it seemed progress was being made?
Perhaps the most haunting and controversial questions revolve around the siege's last day. Which Davidians actually started the fire, and why? Precisely where and when did the fire begin?
Some now contend that the incident was part of an ill-conceived government plot to disarm Americans and strip them of their religious freedom. These conspiracy busters claim the government and the media have been dishing out nothing but lies.
Charges of a Government Conspiracy. Taking the lead in trumpeting such allegations is Linda D. Thompson, an attorney who has filed a $110 million lawsuit against President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno, and other high-ranking government officials. Thompson chairs the Indianapolis-based American Justice Federation (AJF), a group that aims to provide "educational services to the public concerning current issues of Constitutional law and individual Constitutional rights." She claims in her suit that those killed in the Davidian fire "were murdered in a public display of brute force and terrorism by agents of the government in furtherance of the conspiracy to deprive all citizens of their Constitutionally protected rights and to instill [sic] a one-world government."
To prove her charges, Thompson produced Waco: The Big Lie, an inflammatory 30-minute video that paints Koresh as a victim of propaganda.
Critics have identified numerous factual errors in the video. It maintains, for example, that Koresh never seriously called himself God. According to the video, a sarcastic joke the Davidian prophet made during a TV interview was taken out of context by the media. But the JOURNAL has a 1989 teaching tape by Koresh, entitled "The Foundation," in which he says of himself: "Do you know who I am? God in the flesh! Stand in awe and know that I am God."
Thompson also alleges that charges of polygamy leveled against Koresh were invented by government-controlled media and others hostile to a peaceful religious leader. Contradicting Thompson are Koresh's own father and mother, who, during taped conversations in the JOURNAL's possession, have admitted that their son had more than one wife.
When the JOURNAL asked Jack Killorian, chief of the BATF's Public Affairs Branch, about Waco: The Big Lie, he characterized it as "a hodgepodge of edited footage, misinformation, and wrong information." He pointed specifically to a segment which infers that three BATF agents were deliberately murdered by one of their own because they knew too much about the real reason behind the operation. The "proof" offered is footage of the three entering a second-story window as their comrade stays outside. When the film shows the fourth agent attempting to enter that same room, it is purported that he is actually throwing a grenade in after his fellow agents and spraying the room with machine-gun fire.
"All three of the agents who were sent into the upstairs window were killed," accuses the video's narrator. But none of the agents shown going through the second-story window were killed -- and all three testified at the Davidian trial.
Does the Camera Lie? The most thought-provoking sequence in Waco: The Big Lie depicts an armored vehicle under FBI command ramming the Davidian compound. The tape's narrator states: "The following footage proves beyond any doubt that the tanks intentionally set the house on fire. It proves that the Branch Davidians were murdered. You can see that this tank has a gas jet on the front that shoots fire. You can also see the fire quite plainly."
For many, this footage confirmed fears that the government deliberately torched the Davidians' dwelling. Then Mike McNulty, chairman of a privately funded grassroots think-tank called the California Organization for Public Safety (COPS), obtained an uncut version of the original private film from which Thompson drew her footage.
McNulty forwarded the film to Machine Gun News columnist Ken Carter, who, in a February 1994 issue of the gun enthusiast periodical, described what Waco: The Big Lie didn't show: "In the COPS version, rather than stopping the video at the point where the illusion of flame is most apparent, as in the AJF tape, the camera continues to follow the vehicle as it backs clear of the building....As [the] tank turns away from [the] camera, [the] reflection spreads to reveal what appears to be a large section of tan wallboard leaning against [the] turret."
Carter subsequently admitted: "As certain as I previously was that the tank was spewing fire, I am now more convinced that what appeared to be flame was nothing more than an optical illusion created by reflector sunlight."
One month prior to the release of the Machine Gun News piece, Carter was interviewed for a January 21, 1994 Gun Week article entitled "'Waco: The Big Lie' Revealed as Hoax." "Linda Thompson suckered all of us with that one," Carter told Gun Week. "And she had to have known exactly what she was doing, since the videotape sequence was edited a split second before the vehicle pulls back and executes a hard turn which clearly shows the 'flame' image stabilize and turn out to be a piece of wallboard."
Even Soldier of Fortune magazine has spoken out against Waco: The Big Lie. A February 1994 feature article stated: "What appears to be flames in the Thompson video is actually a visual trick....The apparent fire at the end of the CEV [tank] gas induction tube is actually wallboard and other construction debris knocked loose by the CS [gas] sprayer boom."
In a sequel video, Waco II: The Big Lie Continues, Thompson attempts to discredit the COPS tape by noting that it was digitally enhanced. Exactly how the digitization, which improved the film's clarity, affected its validity is never stated. Furthermore, Thompson asserts that even on the COPS film "flames" can be seen before the tank moves into sunlight. The barely visible glow pointed to, however, is not on the tank but is rather some 5-20 feet beyond the "flames" originally identified in Waco: The Big Lie.
Facing the Future. While conspiracy theories about Waco may fade in a few years, many will continue to be plagued by painful memories and unforgettable images.
In March, relatives of 11 Davidians who died at the siege's end filed a $675 million wrongful-death suit against 19 federal agents. The suit alleges that the BATF and FBI violated the victims' constitutional rights during the raid, standoff, and fire.
For the handful of Davidian survivors, now fewer than 20, Koresh is still the Messiah. Ex-member Marc Breault -- once Koresh's right-hand man -- told the JOURNAL that survivor Livingston Fagan has had multiple visions of Koresh. Another Davidian, Jamie Castillo, has also reportedly seen and conversed with the dead Davidian leader.
What hope is left for those who still believe in Koresh? They would answer: "The soon return of David and all who died with him." Survivor Renos Avraam has warned that "when David Koresh comes back, there's going to be a lot of people put to shame."
Sheila Martin, a faithful Davidian who lost her husband and four children in the fire, echoed the same sentiment in a January 17, 1994 U.S. News and World Report article. According to Martin, all things will be made right 1,335 days from the time the "burnt offering" was taken away (see Daniel 12:10-12). In other words, the Davidians who have been judged by the laws of the land expect the real judgment to begin on December 16, 1996 when Koresh returns "to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire" (Isa. 66:15).
Cult Watchers See Troubling Trends
The past year has seen remarkable developments among cults and new religious movements. From the Davidian disaster to the crisis in Christian Science, changes on America's religious fringe offer important clues to where our society is headed spiritually. For a snapshot of the present and a glimpse into the future, the JOURNAL surveyed top observers in the field for their assessment of the most significant trends to watch.
Branch Davidians. Cult specialist and Cornerstone magazine senior editor Eric Pement believes that the Clinton Administration's Waco debacle aroused "much more sympathy [than Jonestown] because of the awful way this was handled." Irving Hexham, professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, agrees: "Unlike Jonestown, it hasn't created a great deal of animosity [toward cults in general]....A lot of people have doubts about what the government did."
Another consequence, says Michael Langone, editor of the American Family Foundation's Cultic Studies Journal, is that Waco "may make things easier for cults because...the government may even be more hesitant to act."
A visible battle for the ear of the government in future conflicts is underway between academics who basically oppose cults and those who sympathize with them, says sociologist and cult specialist Ronald Enroth of Westmont College. "Sharp divisions of professional opinion are occurring regarding new religions....The lines are drawn between the so-called 'anti-cult' movement, which includes academics and professionals, and the so-called 'cult apologists' in the academic world."
"Both sides have been communicating with the Justice Department, giving lists of experts who should be consulted in the future," Enroth adds, noting that Princeton religion professor Nancy Ammerman branded the consultants tapped by the federal government "anti-cult."
Public Relations. In such a climate, public-relations-savvy cults are cooperating to promote a common cause: their unfettered existence.
Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), says that such movements as Scientology, The Family (a.k.a. Children of God), and the Unification church are banding together, "exchanging information and materials and sometimes attending meetings together, cooperating in various ways."
Pement and Enroth have both spotted representatives of cults -- including The Family and the Church Universal and Triumphant -- attending recent academic gatherings. "They're using the academic and professional world to achieve what I call 'legitimation by association,'" says Enroth.
In fact, Brant Pelphrey -- an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor in Bastrop, Texas and former editor of the Hong Kong-based Areopagus magazine -- notes that during a youth pageant at the 1993 Parliament of World Religions, "the only 'Christian group' on the stage was the Children of God. The organizers didn't know who they were."
Related to this, says Alan Gomes, assistant professor of historical theology at Talbot Seminary in La Mirada, California, is the fact that cultic groups "have upped the ante as far as their sophistication of argumentation....They are showing more of an awareness of scholarly literature" and early church writings.
Worldwide Church of God. One group that has profited from continued dialogue with evangelicals is the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), which has now been declared doctrinally sound by many cult experts, including Keith Tolbert, director of the American Religions Center. "In our ministry, we regard them as totally orthodox, and we're inviting them to our next symposium."
The WCG has been moving toward orthodoxy ever since the 1986 death of its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong. The last important hurdle cleared in recent months by current church leaders was an orthodox statement on the Trinity (see this issue's feature article on this, p. 29). But as a result, experts say, the church of 80,000-100,000 is fragmented and in disarray. Several splinter groups have developed, and some have migrated to the church of Herbert's estranged son, Garner Ted.
Gomes says that while the church's progress is "unprecedented," other doctrinal matters need fine-tuning, including its views on grace and Jesus' bodily resurrection. To that, Pement adds concerns about whether the WCG will fully recognize the church universal and abandon closed communion and the belief that only baptism by its own pastors is effective.
Pement also wonders how the church will deal with the "telling of history" in the future, and whether it will claim that "Herbert Armstrong implicitly believed some of the things they're now saying, or if what they're saying is a genuine departure from Herbert Armstrong."
Mormonism. One group that shows no willingness to further revise its history is the Mormon church, which expelled five dissident intellectuals and disfellowshipped one prominent feminist in September. Four months earlier, in an address to the sect's All-Church Coordinating Council, apostle Boyd K. Packer had ranked the five independently thinking liberal scholars alongside homosexuals and feminists as the top dangers to the church.
"The hierarchy of the Mormon church has made the same decision as the Catholic church," says Hexham. "They can afford to lose a few intellectuals, but they're going to keep the masses -- and the masses want certainty."
Some believe that such scholars will likely get more press attention outside the church, and will probably continue to turn up damaging information about Mormonism. Gomes says to watch for whether the church will continue to "clamp down hard" on deviant views or "engage in a kind of deconstruction" in which the Book of Mormon becomes important for containing so-called truth, but not for its literal historicity.
New Age Relativism. Truth is becoming an increasingly relative concept for most Americans. Bill Alnor, executive director of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions, says this is dramatically evident in America's mainline denominations, many of which he considers "almost completely apostate." (Tolbert dubs them "sideline religions.") To this observation Alnor adds the view that the general public "has been made more anti-Christian than ever and is more suspicious of religion than ever."
Both Alnor and Tolbert assert that many mainline churches have gutted themselves spiritually by denying the real gospel. In so doing they have left a spiritual vacuum -- "the main reason why so many mainline religions are adopting elements of the New Age," says Tolbert.
Pelphrey notes that New Age "neo-Buddhist and neo-Hindu" influences have so penetrated his small-town Texas culture that when he asked a youth group, "Do you know anybody who believes in reincarnation?" they replied, "We don't know anybody who doesn't." He laments, "There are cultural assumptions that they've taken in that are simply not compatible with the Christian perspective, and they're so thoroughly held that the kids don't know that it's not Christian."
"The New Age has gotten a foothold in our society, and I am just assuming that, statistically, the probability of new cults arising [in such a susceptible milieu] will become greater," predicts Langone.
While Pelphrey concurs, Hexham anticipates a somewhat different possibility. He believes that, precisely because the New Age is now mainstream, "people are getting fed up with it" just as they did with spiritism in the 1840s, and this may foreshadow its decline.
Christian Science. One sect that Hexham and other observers see in irreversible decline is Christian Science, whose U.S. membership once numbered around six million and now hovers between 180,000 and 250,000. In recent months the church was hit hard by a series of legal actions accompanied by negative publicity. Among them:
- A Minnesota man was awarded $14.2 million after his 11-year-old son died of juvenile diabetes while the man's Christian Scientist ex-wife and her new husband withheld all treatment but prayer.
A California woman filed a similar suit against her ex-husband for allegedly allowing their 12-year-old diabetic boy to die, treating him only with prayer.
- The state of Massachusetts, where the church is headquartered, struck down a law holding that spiritual healing alone is not a form of child neglect.
- And in January, a group of Christian Scientists filed a suit accusing their leaders of mismanaging funds and leaving the church $83 million in debt after a failed $450 million media venture.
"It's been a bad press year," says Pement. He and other experts say the church is destined to decline because of Eddy's stipulation that no other leader could follow in her footsteps. And, unlike New Thought groups that have incorporated New Age ideas into their thinking, Christian Science has failed to adapt to the times, adds Enroth.
Scientology. One movement that seems tailor-made for the times is the fast-growing Church of Scientology. After the movement received tax-exempt status as a religious organization in October, David Miscavige, chairman of the board of Scientology's Religious Technology Centre, triumphantly announced to a gathering of 12,000 adherents in Los Angeles that "the war is over."
Miscavige declared that the Internal Revenue Service had agreed to send letters to governments worldwide declaring its recognition of Scientology's status. "It should mark the beginning of our greatest expansion ever."
Alnor bleakly states: "I consider this the most dangerous situation, bar none." Enroth calls the IRS ruling "a major victory" for Scientology and an open door for other questionable groups to receive similar recognition. Pement says that, with this obstacle removed, the church is now likely to continue growing "much farther and faster," thanks to its marketing abilities.
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