Our Waco Approach Highlighted on CBS’s “Madame Secretary”

It took 22 years but our Waco work has hit the mainstream. It was referenced on CBS’s award winning show, Madame Secretary (Episode 18, that aired March 29, 2015). My guess would be the Malcom Gladwell piece “Sacred and Profane” in the New Yorker last spring was the catalyst for this being picked up by the mainstream.

The show, titled “The Time is at Hand” was about a “doomsday” religious group threatening suicide. You can watch the whole episode, which I recommend, but the Waco references begin at 24:06 with the question by Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (played by Téa Leoni): “How do we avoid another Waco?” We are then told by her theologian/biblical scholar husband Henry McCord (played by Tim Daly) a summary of the approach Dr. Phil Arnold and I used at Waco in dealing with David Koresh, with the reference to “a couple of religious scholars got him (Koresh) talking about his beliefs…scholars almost saved the day at Waco…”

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For more on Waco, our approach, and what the media has generally missed, see my post “Waco After Twenty Years: Getting the Facts Straight” and read the first chapter of our book, Why Waco here.


At Last: A Perceptive Mainstream Piece on What Went Wrong at Waco

We are coming up to the 21st anniversary of the tragic Branch Davidian Waco disaster. In all those 21 years I have yet to see a perceptive mainstream analysis of what was really going on in April 1993, what went wrong, and what could have been done right with just a minimal bit of understanding of the dynamics of biblical “messianic” apocalypticism.

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This week in the New Yorker that has changed. Malcolm Gladwell’s most perceptive analytical piece, “Sacred and Profane: How Not to Negotiate with Believers” breaks new ground.

Koresh needed another way to make sense of the prophecies in the Book of Revelation, so that a violent end was not preordained. Tabor and Arnold made a tape—a long, technical discussion of an alternative reading of Revelation—aired it on the radio, and sent it to Koresh. Koresh listened and was persuaded. He had been called a liar, a child molester, a con man, and a phony messiah. He had been invited to treat his children like bargaining chips and his followers like hostages. But now someone was taking his beliefs seriously. “I am presently being permitted to document in structured form the decoded messages of the seven seals,” he wrote back. “Upon the completion of this task, I will be freed of my waiting period. . . . As soon as I can see that people like Jim Tabor and Phil Arnold have a copy, I will come out and then you can do your thing with this beast.”

Finally we get a treatment of the Branch Davidian community that explains why they followed David Koresh as “Messiah,” what they meant by that term, and how the BATF and FBI so woe-fully misunderstood all that was going on with such tragic results. The point is not so much to blame as to understand. I have written extensively on the subject, including my co-authored book with Gene Gallagher, Why Waco: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), the first chapter of which you can read on-line here. I also have touched on Waco a number of times on my blog, see here and here.

A Sad Footnote to the Whole Tragedy: In fact the first chapter of the “Seven Seals” manuscript David Koresh was writing during Passover of 1993 survived the fire. Dr. Philip Arnold and I presented it at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in November meeting in Washington, D.C. that year, as we had promised Koresh. Despite FBI doubts and subsequent denials, David was indeed working on his manuscript. What the FBI failed to realize is that the most important thing to a “prophet” is that his or her message go forth. Koresh saw in us a change for his “revelation” regarding the Seven Seals to reach biblical scholars worldwide–and that is what he wanted more than life itself. Unfortunately, Attorney General Janet Reno, who reluctantly approved the April 19th attack on the Branch Davidian Center, was never told about the manuscript or the agreement Arnold and I had made with Koresh through attorney Dick DeGuerin. She kept asking through the weekend–Is there any reason for waiting? Any hope for a peaceful resolution? She was not even shown Koresh’s April 14th letter quoted above where he promises to give us his manuscript. Those inside, including Clive Doyle and David Thibodeau, have verified to us that David’s decision to write the manuscript and deliver it to us, then exit and even face jail, was joyfully received throughout the group as a solution to the standoff. They were all convinced they were coming out peacefully in a matter of days. The Koresh manuscript is published as an appendix to our book, Why Waco, with a commentary and exposition as to its meaning.

“Bible Secrets Revealed” to Air Beginning November 13th on the History Channel

bible_secrets_revealed_logoBeginning air date has been changed to Wednesday, November 13th

Some months ago I had the pleasure of working with several of the producers of a new series for the History Channel provocatively titled “Bible History Revealed” commissioned by Prometheus Entertainment, the rather fascinating brain-child of Kevin Burns of which and about whom you can read more here. My interview ran for three hours as we zipped through the gamut of topics for the six programs covering A-Z with questions such as the following:

What did it mean to be a prophet? What was the purpose of these prophecies?
Why was Daniel not included in the Prophets section of the Bible?
What is the historical place of the book of Enoch?
What was a messiah?
What message did John the Baptist preach?
Were John the Baptist and Jesus at one time considered rival prophets?
Did Jesus see himself as a divine being?
What is the message in The Book of Revelation?
How do Jews, Christians and Muslims view the afterlife?
What was the most surprising secret revealed by the Dead Sea Scrolls?
How has the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls affected Biblical translations and history?
What does the Gabriel Stone say that might indicate a suffering messiah figure predating Jesus?
Why was the Ark of the Covenant so important and what about all the theories as to what happened to it and its possible current whereabouts?
What needs to happen for the Promised Land and End of Days prophecies to be fulfilled?
How has the Bible been misinterpreted in modern society?

Many dozens of my friends and colleagues were also brought into this six part series with similar questions, but tailored to their particular areas of expertise. Bob Cargill gives a partial list of participants here, as well an updated list of the six shows with their air dates here. All episodes air at 10 pm Eastern/9 pm Central:

“LOST IN TRANSLATION” – Nov 13, 2013
“THE PROMISED LAND” – Nov 20, 2013
“THE REAL JESUS” – Dec 4, 2013


Those of us who have done lots of these sorts of interviews know that of the hours we talk about nearly everything under the sun only a tiny fraction of what we say ends up getting used. I think this is fine as an overall method as it allows the producers and editors to take in the whole range of views and opinions on these controversial topics and the selectively try to represent the depth and breadth of scholarly views. Diversity in this case is a virtue not a vice. It is good for the public to understand that our field of “Christian Origins” in particular is a complex one with a variety of critical methods of inquiry that come into play in what we broadly call the “academic study of religions.” I think this promises to be a good series and I recommend it to my readers–if for nothing else than a nice overview of the diversity of academic positions and opinions.

The Waco Tragedy After Twenty Years: Getting the Facts Straight

So much has been in the media over the past two decades on the Waco tragedy. Sorting through the mass of information is a daunting task. Most influential have been a dozen or more television documentaries produced by independent film makers and several major networks from Frontline to MSNBC. I have participated in several of them but frankly I can not endorse a single one as an objective and comprehensive treatment.

Although a rather accurate account of “what really happened at Waco” is available in several excellent books (see Why Waco for bibliography) the popular media, particularly TV documentaries, continue to terribly distort the story. The upshot: Evil crazy cult leader David Koresh is to blame for the deaths of his fanatical brainwashed followers. Here are some facts that recast the standard story:

1. The Raid: The initial violent and aggressive BATF raid on the Mt. Carmel community, dubbed “Operation Showtime” by the authorities, on February 28, 1993, was entirely unnecessary. Koresh had invited BATF agents out to inspect the guns and discuss any problem they had with him, the local Sheriff had a good relationship with Koresh and had been out there several times, and Koresh himself could have easily been arrested and questioned at any point. There was no need for an armed assault (aka “dynamic entry”) that peaceful Sunday morning.

2. The Arms: The Branch Davidians were not “hording weapons” nor were they any threat to their neighbors or the public. Their stock of arms was no more a “hoard” than the inventory of any licensed gun dealer in Texas. Actually, per person, all told, they owned less guns than the average Texas citizen. The “illegal” guns in question, weapons converted from semi- to fully automatic are not “illegal,” but apparently the Davidians had failed to fill out the proper paperwork and pay the required fees for such weapons. Such registration violations surely do not merit armed assault. The Davidians traded their weapons regularly at gun shows and used such commerce to financially support their community. The Davidians did believe in self-defense and part of their motivation for having arms was just such a contingency as that of the BATF assault February 28th.

3. The Assault: Koresh went to the door and said “Don’t shoot, there are women and children in here,” and Harvard Law School graduate Wayne Martin called 911 and begged the authorities to stop the shooting as soon as it started. Video footage plainly shows BATF agents firing multiple rounds into the thin frame building at Mt. Carmel, shielded behind the vehicles parked in front. None of the windows of the vehicles are shattered by return fire, no guns appear in the curtained windows. Agents also fired from helicopters above down into the building full of women and children. A few Davidians did fire back, but most cowered on the floors. Judy Schneider took a bullet while holding her baby in a rocking chair in a bedroom. Winston Blake was shot dead sitting on the side of his bed eating a morning piece of toast. David’s father-in-law, Perry Jones, was shot in the stomach standing in front of the door. Most of the Davidians were just waking up on a Sunday morning and had no idea what had happened when suddenly gunfire ripped through the thin walled building. The BATF casualties were mainly to those agents who sought to forcefully enter the upper story on the roof firing inside and using hand grenades. Several Davidians, including Koresh fired back in self-defense.

4. The Community: The members of the community were a group of intelligent, educated, self-aware, rational, and biblically committed Christians who had come to believe that David Koresh was a Messiah figure who had been given a final revelation for the Last Days. They took the Lord’s Supper daily, prayed, sung songs, and engaged in Bible studies. The video they sent out in early March was never released to the public because it showed a calm and rational group of highly committed people who were telling the truth about what happened on February 28th and explaining their belief system. They did not fit the stereotype of the crazed cult follower.

5.The Standoff: David Koresh did not repeatedly lie to the FBI during the 51 Day siege. There is not a single documented lie he told the whole time of the standoff. He wanted to come out peacefully but had two concerns—that his message would somehow be communicated to the outside without distortion and that what happened on February 28th would be fairly handled in legal proceedings. He sent out all the children but his own, and all his adult followers whom he judged might not be strong enough or have enough conviction to stay through to the end.  He was worried that the Davidians would be arrested, charged with murder, thrown in jail, and evidence destroyed, plus the faith they held be cast as one more crazy cult message.  He reversed his March 2nd pledge to exit after the radio broadcast of his message because it was not really broadcast widely and he believed he received a “Word” from God to wait. His pledge to exit on April 14th was in good faith and he was convinced that at least there was a way to insure both the purity of his message and the proper legal treatment of him and his people.

6. The Exit Plan. Koresh had worked out with his lawyer Dick DeGuerin a full exit plan, even down to the order people would come out, and sent out a signed legal agreement a few days before the final assault with the tanks and CS gas. He did not trust the Federal authorities and insisted on Texas Rangers being involved. He had also worked out a plan via Drs. Arnold and Tabor for his exposition of the Seven Seals, the core of the Davidian message, to be properly presented to the world in a manuscript he would hand over to them upon exit. The final recorded conversations between Koresh and the negotiators even two days before the fire show an upbeat Koresh, openly rejoicing at the deal that had been worked out, and eagerly anticipating the exit of the group and the peaceful resolution of the crisis and standoff.

7. Janet Reno Deceived. Attorney General Janet Reno was never told of any exit plan or deal that had been worked out. She repeatedly asked the FBI officials if there was any hope, or any other way. She was told that all avenues had been exhausted, that children were being abused, and that Koresh had repeatedly lied about his intentions. She was pressured to conclude that no other option was open other than the tank assault.

8. The Davidian Apocalypse. The Davidians did believe that they would face persecution and death eventually, as the book of Revelation predicts for the saints, but they were firmly convinced it would be in Israel, not the United States, sometime after the year 1995. They had no expectations that Waco in 1993 was a time that they were to die. Koresh believed that all that happened with the BATF and FBI was in the will of God, but he began to see the tragic events as God’s way of bringing his message to the world. He had no reason to want to die and his convictions that he was a chosen Messiah and had a final message for the world was his main motive to resolve things peacefully. According to prophecy he was to live to gather 144,000 followers would eventually move to Israel and live on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. He believed that the BATF assault and the FBI standoff had tragically led to his notoriety that would actually allow this prophecy to be fulfilled. Before the siege he had perhaps 200 followers worldwide—and now his name had suddenly become a household name.  He was sad for the tragic deaths but encouraged by the potential this had put before him.

9. The Seven Seals Manuscript. Koresh finished writing his exposition of the 1st seal on the Saturday before the Monday assault and resulting fire. The group was quite upbeat and ecstatic. Although he did not want to send it out bit by bit he reluctantly agreed to do so on Saturday and was having the 1st seal typed up on Sunday before the assault. Steve Schneider called the FBI once the tanks began to attack and told the FBI negotiators, powerless at that time, that the first chapter was ready to be sent out as agreed.  The manuscript survived the fire on a computer disk that Ruth Riddle, a survivor, carried out.  She had typed it the previous day.

10. The Fire. Although it is possible that David ordered a fire set at the very end, concluding that the FBI had broken its word and had no interest in his manuscript that is not entirely clear. The “bug tapes” are not as clear as alleged and the jarring of the tanks against the frame building, with hay bales and oil lanterns in each room, might well have been a cause of fire. If the Davidians did start the fire it was likely out of their belief that they would walk out unharmed, like Daniel’s friends in the Lion’s Den, and triumph over their foes. Their horrible deaths and the hopelessness of suicide was a last resort and totally undesired and unnecessary on their part.