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

At the end of time, the Book of Revelation says, the rivers and lakes will be bitter and poisoned, the stars and sun and moon will dim, monsters will roam the earth, plagues will wipe out huge populations and the living will wish they were dead. The Whore of Babylon, dressed in purple and red and adorned with jewels, mounted on a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns, will wage war with the righteous few, who will emerge victorious and live in a walled city containing the tree of knowledge, with Christ and his angels ruling.

Many, perhaps most Christians take this terrifying and compelling vision of the apostle John symbolically. But for those who take it literally, there is work to be done. If you are a Branch Davidian, you withdraw from the world behind walls and arm yourself against the unrighteous who will be pounding against your gates when the stars fall from the skies. If you are a Freeman, you also arm yourself and organize a new political order that will reign when God restores the world to his original principles. As the year 2000 approaches, the odds are great that other apocalyptic groups will take similarly radical actions -- sometimes against others, sometimes against themselves -- believing that this earthly life is about to end and something new and wonderful will replace it. And if not, well, better to shuffle off this mortal coil than to live in Babylon.

To most of the outside world, the beliefs of apocalyptic groups may seem like mere lunacy, hardly worth worrying about, but religion scholar Phillip Arnold has devoted his career to helping the secular world understand and maybe even value the beliefs of believers so at odds with what we call normal. After the FBI surrounded the Freemen in Montana this spring, it turned to Arnold for scholarly perspective on the group, which seemed both religiously as well as politically inspired. The Freemen eventually surrendered peacefully. It was a far different story, of course, in Waco.

Not that Arnold was an expert on the Branch Davidians. He had never heard of them until reports of a shootout between the Davidians and federal agents flooded the news in February 1993. Arnold was a scholar of first-century apocalyptic Christians whom he calls the Teachers of the Law. Emphasizing that Jesus had fulfilled Jewish prophecy, the Teachers of the Law believed that Christian converts should strictly adhere to 613 ancient Jewish laws, including circumcision and diet. Their beliefs eerily echoed those of David Koresh.

It was as if the ancient characters of Arnold's doctoral dissertation had come to life and danced across the stage of television, and perished in flames, their prophecies scorned and ridiculed, their leader treated as nothing more than a con man. The deaths of 80 Branch Davidians, as well as those of four federal agents, would change Phil Arnold's story forever.

It was not just that Arnold felt he understood David Koresh and his followers in a way that few others could, or that he thought he could have saved them if the FBI had only listened to him. And although he is a man of faith, Arnold is not bent on saving souls. Rather, in an age of specialists, Phil Arnold has a mission to preserve the lives of the outcasts and the misfits of the religious world, the questioners and the obsessives. He treasures them as fellow seekers, and wants to ensure them the freedom to practice their beliefs, misguided though they sometimes may be. And what Arnold wants is something he has seen too little of: a society that is patient and tolerant of people whose faith is different, whose beliefs are emphatic, whose commitment to inspiration is too extreme for the secular world. Although he bears all the academic credentials of a scholar and historian, in his heart, Phil Arnold, too, is one of them, out of the mainstream, both a believer and a questioner.

More religious energy must be concentrated in the two-block area around Chaucer Street near Rice University than anywhere else in Houston. At the head of Chaucer on Rice Boulevard sits the two-storied white brick house of the Maryknoll Order, a society of priests inspired by liberation theology to fight the political and economic oppression of the Latin-American poor. Only a couple of houses away on the east side of Chaucer sits the tidy brick headquarters of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic group dedicated to preserving the spiritual and moral authority of the papacy. Further down from Opus Dei is the Aquarian Age Bookshelf, a source for Eastern religion and New Age works. At 5508 Chaucer opposite Opus Dei is the rose-brick duplex where Arnold has set up the Reunion Institute, his nonprofit foundation for the scholarly study of religion. Before the Reunion Institute bought the building in 1991, it was occupied by a group devoted to transcendental meditation.

The Reunion Institute is pretty much a one-man religious think tank and resource group, inspired by Arnold's calling to help others obtain nonjudgmental information about religion. Arnold does the fundraising, arranges classes and lectures, conducts scholarly research, networks with other scholars and counsels with people who want information about religion.

The Reunion Institute may be best known locally for bringing some heavyweight religious scholars to town. Dead Sea Scrolls scholar James Charlesworth drew a crowd of more than 500 to a hotel ballroom in 1994. This autumn, the Institute plans to participate in an archaeological dig in Jerusalem, and Arnold is excited about delving deeper into the historical places where Jesus walked. For him, religion is not a matter of faith or inspiration only, but a subject for intellectual study and historical reasoning, an interesting combination for a man who treasures the true believers, the people who think they've got all the answers.

In addition to offices, classroom and conference rooms, there is a cozy book-lined nook in the old duplex with two wing chairs where Arnold likes to talk. The shelves are filled with a wide range of titles about religion and philosophy, everything from The Nature of Evil, by a Rice University humanities professor of the '30s, to explanations of the Cabala, treatises on St. Paul and do-it-yourself Hebrew. Arnold is not a pastor, for he holds no theological degree. He's more like a deeply sympathetic humanities professor to whom you can talk about the big questions, who will not only point you to books, but open his whole heart. In his lighter moments he enjoys British folk music and playing that pastime of bars and game rooms, air hockey -- a game in which, he says, he's nationally ranked. A pleasant, dark-haired man of 46, he has never married, though he would like to.

"But it would take a special sort of woman," he says, "to tolerate all my interests. Not everyone would enjoy throwing a party and having a Hare Krishna here, an ex-Mormon here, and a Freeman over there and an atheist over here. What a mix! When we have our lectures we get groups like that, and we'll spend a couple of hours talking and having a drink, except the Baptist, who won't drink."

Marriage to Arnold would also require an interest in the big questions, questions such as what does it all mean? why are we here? For Arnold, such questions have become the defining force of his life. Arnold's parents were Southern Baptists, but he grew up attending nondenominational chapels at a series of Air Force bases until he was a teenager and his family settled in San Antonio for several years. He recalls searching the literature of Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists for answers, and with the encouragement of his parents, enrolled in an East Texas college that promised to help him on his quest for religious knowledge.

Ambassador College in Tyler was the educational arm of Herbert Armstrong's World Wide Church of God, a sect that was, in Arnold's words, part of the left wing of the Reformation. These were the radical reformers such as the Quakers, Amish and the Mennonites, the Anabaptist sects that questioned society and stressed the importance of individual religious experience over received ideas. During the early '70s, the World Wide Church was opposed to compulsory military service, jury duty and capital punishment, says Arnold. Arnold found the church too doctrinaire, but his college experience seems to have sealed his sympathy for the people who shout no to the power of Babylon, who follow a vision of the Eternal.

"No matter what kind of society we form," says Arnold "whether it's a secular society or a Christian society or a diversified society, whatever it is, it will always fall short of the Kingdom. So the person of faith has to walk through this world always aware of the Eternal standing over and against society. That preserves us as individuals from being deceived by society, that its wars are justified or that its customs are supposed to be accepted without question or that its religion is somehow a divinely inspired thing. We are to stand in judgment and question all these things, because Heaven itself or the eternal dimension is always standing over and against this world."

If the Eternal had been Arnold's only way of understanding the world, he might have gone to a seminary. But he was also a believer in reason, and he wanted to understand not just what he thought about things eternal, but how others thought. He decided to study colonial American history at the University of Houston, where he wrote about "these radical left-wing types" such as the Quakers, who criticized Puritan society. Enamored with the beliefs of the Society of Friends, he continued to study their literature and, during the early 1980s, taught at the Quaker seminary situated at the Texas Medical Center while pursuing a doctorate in religion at Rice University.

Arnold's calling came in 1980, two years after the Jonestown disaster in which nearly 200 people in a South American enclave committed suicide on the orders of a charismatic, paranoid preacher named Jim Jones. It was a time of religious upheaval. Shiite radicals in Iran had held Americans hostage for weeks, humiliating the Carter administration. Some prominent American fundamentalist preachers were predicting that a nuclear war in the Middle East might trigger the events of the Book of Revelation, and were suggesting that maybe that was a good idea. Young people were dropping out of college to join Eastern religious sects that had withdrawn from the secular world. Self-appointed "deprogrammers" were kidnapping them and breaking them down to "normality" through humiliating interrogations, usually for a hefty fee from their parents.

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.

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.

"Unlike a lot of us who sit in the ivory tower," Wessinger says, "he stepped out bravely and the rest of us are following."

Apparently mindful of its experience during the Waco siege, when the FBI surrounded the ranch of a Montana group called the Freemen this spring, it called on Arnold's Religion-Crisis Task Force. (The FBI refused any comment, saying the Freemen case was an ongoing investigation.) Arnold recommended an expert on the religious beliefs of the Freemen, which are based in part on the Christian Identity movement. During the first week of June, Arnold flew to Jordan, Montana, at the FBI's request to gather more information about the group.

While Arnold takes no direct credit for helping end the standoff, he probably deserves some indirect credit for shifting the FBI's perspective on the religious beliefs of the Freemen. Toward the end of the conflict, the FBI flew the besieged leader of the Freemen out of his isolated ranch to consult with the group's spiritual leader, who was jailed 200 miles away in Billings. Two days later, the Freemen surrendered -- in part because the FBI had taken their religious beliefs seriously.

As the year 2000 approaches, says Arnold, we can expect to see more and more apocalyptic groups rise up, condemning society, predicting disaster, calling for a return to God, and it will be an outcry for which Arnold will have a great deal of sympathy. The siege in Waco was a microcosm, he says, of what we are likely to see again during the next four years, unless we learn some lessons.

Law enforcement? "It was arrogant and impatient," says Arnold.
The news media? "They did not try to find out what Koresh was really saying. They did not do their homework. They were whores, and as a result, men, women and children burned to death."

The public? "Apathetic. They watched the siege like they would watch a soap opera."

The clergy? "They were no-shows. Blood is on their hands."
And David Koresh and his ringleaders, people whom Arnold took quite seriously?

"They were arrogant and full of pride, full of judgment and prone to violence. They had all the answers. They were idolaters."

Arnold has spent hundreds of hours listening to the audio tapes that the FBI made during the 51-day siege. But he says he is still too close to the story to publish a book.

Religion is founded on stories, Arnold says, and where a society lacks stories, it loses its way, and demonic stories rush in to fill the vacuum, stories of conspiracy, evil and murder. The Davidians followed their story, and the FBI followed the only story about criminals it knew: they were liars and con men, interested in staying out of jail.

As the year 2000 comes, more apocalyptic groups will emerge, thinking they have the one story. A thousand years ago in Europe, people killed themselves, thinking the world was coming to an end, all because a year ended in three zeroes.

Arnold doesn't want that to happen again. To the new millennialists, he offers the words of Jesus about the end of time, a quotation law enforcement might keep in mind for future use. It comes from Matthew 24:36 of the King James version: "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of Heaven ....

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