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

Unable to talk to the chief FBI negotiators, Arnold did manage to share his views with attorney Dick DeGuerin, who, at the request of Koresh's mother, was trying to talk Koresh out. DeGuerin says he found Arnold particularly helpful in understanding the group's religious views, especially with regard to the possibility of both hopeful and tragic interpretations of the Book of Revelation.

Arnold thought he might have the bait to bring Koresh out, but he had to find a way of talking to Koresh. He knew that the Davidians made a habit of listening to Ron Engelman's morning talk show on KGBS out of Dallas. In early March, Engelman had interviewed Arnold for five minutes about the Book of Revelation, and the Davidians, apparently longing for a Bible scholar to take them seriously, asked the FBI on March 16 if they could talk to Arnold. The FBI refused that request, but did send the Davidians a tape of the interview, which Arnold supplied.

Arnold persuaded Engelman to let him and University of North Carolina religion professor James Tabor broadcast to the Davidians about the Book of Revelation on April 1. Their presentation, based on interviews with jailed Davidian theologian Livingstone Fagan, contained two critical points. The first was that many religious prophets had spent time in jail, and Koresh would suffer no dishonor from that. The two scholars praised Koresh's interpretation of the seals and said that if he were indeed the "Lamb," it was important to humankind that he write his interpretations down. Prison, they pointed out, would be the place to do it. Their second point concerned a passage in the sixth chapter of Revelation about the fifth seal, which says that the godly were to "wait a little season," in the words of the King James version that Koresh followed. Koresh interpreted a "little season" as two or three months, but Arnold and Tabor argued that in the original Greek the word translated as "season" actually meant "time." The little season could be months or years, time in which Koresh and his group could bring their message to the world.

Except for one key provision, Koresh appears to have bought the concept. Rather than go to prison and write his interpretation of the seals, as Arnold had urged, he said he would write his interpretation before surrendering, and, on April 14, sent a letter through DeGuerin stating that copies of the interpretation should be sent to Arnold and Tabor.

Was Koresh lying about his intention to come out? "Like with most con men, usually there was a grain of truth, but he would never follow through," says former FBI spokesman Ricks. "Our psychologists and negotiators believed that it would be an endless process. It was almost as though he was attempting to convert them into Branch Davidians."

On April 18, the FBI sent tanks and launched tear gas into the compound. The women and children huddled in a food storage area, where they sang and recited Bible verses.

"They had a choice," Arnold says, "what I call the Davidian dilemma. Do they obey God and stay and trust him and fate to protect them, or do they just surrender to what they consider to be the enemies of God?"

Some of the surviving Davidians think the government caused the fire, says Arnold, but after listening to key audio tapes and talking to the survivors, he believes that one or two Davidian leaders may have set off a wall of fire in the belief it would protect them.

"It's that power of the idea again," says Arnold. "Some would call it superstition, but others would call it a religious motivation. It's like Daniel in the lions' den. They called on God to protect them, and they all burned to death, praying at the same time. Those children huddled with their mothers, and their mothers saying, 'Honey, it's okay, God will protect us, he loves us.' "

In telling his story, Arnold has been almost prosecutorial, like a lawyer narrating the story of a crime. When he comes to the death of the women and children, he has to compose himself to stop from weeping.

Haunted by what he believes were unnecessary deaths in Waco, Arnold founded the Religion-Crisis Task Force, a network of some 60 religion scholars from across the country who provide information and advice about sects that are out of the mainstream. The Task Force is little more than an office with a fax line through which Arnold keeps in touch with experts as they are needed.

One of them is Catherine Wessinger, a professor of contemporary religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans. Wessinger says that the Davidian tragedy was a turning point for many American religious scholars, who were appalled by what they saw as poor news coverage and the demonization of the Davidians. But many scholars were reluctant and unprepared to talk to the media. She says she turned down an invitation to appear on a national news program about the Davidians because she felt she didn't know enough. In her stead, she says, were self-described "cult experts" who tend to see religious belief as pathology. Since the Waco tragedy, she says, she talks to reporters, and she credits Phil Arnold with showing the way.

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