Troubleshooter for the Millennium

Suddenly, as the year 2000 approaches, Phillip Arnold's study of first-century apocalyptic Christians is more than a scholarly pursuit

In the midst of such turmoil, Arnold thought people needed a dispassionate source of information about religion. He chose the word "reunion" because he hoped to reunite parents estranged from children who had joined religious sects that were out of the mainstream. He gave his number as a resource to various crisis hotlines and began counseling people who asked for his help.

"I don't think the people who have joined cults have been brainwashed," says Arnold, "They have been persuaded, sometimes by unethical techniques, but they have experienced a religious conversion of some sort, and we should not call it brainwashing."

He recalls a Houston woman who was concerned that her son had dropped out of the drinking, partying and drug scene at college to become a devotee of the Hare Krishna sect. Arnold says he always counsels patience and understanding for both parties.

"She was just horrified," Arnold recalls. "She was concerned about what food he ate, about his not coming to his grandfather's funeral."

Arnold organized a Sunday dinner for the two and asked the young man to keep an open mind about the sect. The young man promised to consider Arnold's warnings, but he stayed with the Krishnas, and his impatient mother hired "deprogrammers" who kidnapped her son from the Krishna compound, jammed him into a car and roared through the streets of Houston pursued by Krishnas in a van, who forced them off the road and retrieved their acolyte. The result was that the young man stayed several years longer than he might have, Arnold says. The mother, Arnold says, couldn't grasp what the search was about. In that, she may have been like most of contemporary society. She was flat uncomfortable that her son had become more religious than she was.

Nowhere was the lack of understanding more painfully underlined to Arnold than in the siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993. Two days after the February 28 shootout in which four federal agents and six Davidians were killed, the Fort Worth Star Telegram printed a sermon by David Koresh. Arnold hurried over to the University of Houston library and spent two hours studying it. Until the violence erupted, Arnold had never heard of the Branch Davidians, but he immediately saw how they resembled his first-century Christians.

"Koresh was apocalyptic, he was Torah-observant," says Arnold. "He kept the Jewish law as well as the New Testament laws, and he thought of himself as a sort of a Jewish Christian. Whether he was really Jewish or not is another question, but he thought he was an Israelite. And he was very much like the people I had been studying."

And unless the FBI took Koresh's religious beliefs seriously, Arnold feared more lives would be lost. In early March, eight days into the siege, Arnold drove to Waco and talked his way into an FBI press conference, where he offered his written opinions to Bob Ricks, the agent in charge of talking to the news media. Ricks didn't seem interested, Arnold says, but he finally took Arnold's papers, and a few days later, an agent named Tom Murphy phoned. Arnold would later conclude that Murphy was doing little more than handling public relations for the FBI, and that Arnold's insights would have little effect on the FBI negotiations.

It is easy in hindsight to say that the FBI should have handled the Waco siege differently, but Bob Ricks doesn't appear to have any second thoughts about how the government dealt with the Davidians. Ricks, who left the FBI last October to become commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, says that the agency consulted with religion scholars at Baylor University as well as Arnold, and that agents spent night after night reading the Book of Revelation looking for answers.

Where Arnold saw prophecy, vision and belief, Ricks saw manipulation and control. Here was the illegitimate son of a carpenter who had been wounded in the side and the hand. Koresh slowly and incrementally let his followers think he was Jesus by announcing various revelations that only God or Jesus would know, Ricks says, gaining more and more dominance over the lives of the people in the compound. That control would have ended with surrender, and Koresh was not about to give up his power. Ultimately, Ricks says, Koresh was a con man and "any good con man believes the con."

From his study of Koresh's sermon and from new reports, Arnold thought that the Davidians, like other apocalyptic groups, believed that they were nearing the end of time. Koresh was sermonizing from the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, in which the disciple John has a vision of a catastrophe in which most of the earth's population is wiped out. In John's vision, an angel offers a sacred book sealed with seven seals and challenges the religious leadership to read it. No one can break the seals and decipher the book except a creature known as the Lamb, usually thought to be Jesus.

Using dozens of scriptural references, David Koresh concluded that he was the Lamb, not Jesus, and that he had a messianic mission to save the world. It was important to Arnold to find out where Koresh thought he was in this scenario of the final days. If he were on the first or second seal, Arnold believed, there was plenty of time. But if he were on the fifth seal, the situation was critical. After skirting around the issue with Murphy, Arnold finally got from him the answer he feared: Koresh thought he and his followers were living through the events described in the fifth seal.

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