Tag Archives: Koresh

From Waco to ISIS: The Road Back to Sanity

When we view the horrible excesses of ISIS we may be tempted to believe that the movement and its followers are not sane. But our review of the events at Waco reminds us that no true believer is totally remote from spiritual insanity. Human nature is seriously flawed on account of sin, and sanity is often a miracle of God when it occurs. Every one of us should be grateful to God if our mental processes are reasonably sane. My purpose from here on is to explore how Waco and ISIS occurred and discover the path the Bible suggests we follow if we are to avoid the kinds of abuses that have occurred in both situations.

As noted in prevous blogs, Islam is divided today between what one could call Political Islam and Spiritual Islam. On the political side you have the jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood and many others who believe that the will of God in this world requires political and sometimes military action on the part of God’s followers. God’s way in this world depends on aggressive and sometimes violent intervention on the part of His followers. On the spiritual side, the mission of Islam is to restore the true faith of Abraham that has been distorted by political forms of Judaism and Christianity. In that scenario, Islam is a religion of peace, whose mission is to draw all believers back to the true God and to achieve harmony and peace. This divide between political and spiritual Islam goes all the way back to Muhammad’s day. Some would even see it in the Qur’an, where there is a difference in flavor between the Meccan (earlier) and Medinan (later) suras.

Most of the Muslims I know are clearly on the spiritual side of the above divide. That is what I perceive in the two religious leaders I introduced to everyone on my Facebook page earlier this month, Dr. Mustafa Kuko and Dr. As-Salaam Abdullah. That is one reason Dr. Kuko was so distressed about the events in San Bernardino, that someone who listened to his teachings could veer so far off the spiritual track into senseless violence.

For readers from a Seventh-day Adventist background, there is no room here for smug self-assurance. “Thank God we are not like those violent Muslims.” History tells us that while the peaceful, non-combatant side of Adventism is more prominent in most people’s consciousness, a more political side has shown itself in the past. A prime example is the Waco compound under David Koresh’s leadership, which I outlined at the beginning. Far less known at that time and a little before is a guerilla army in Southeast Asia that did not attack on Sabbath. Looking further back into Adventist history is the interesting case of John Harvey Kellogg. A colleague of mine has traced a line of thinking that runs from Battle Creek to Auschwitz. Kellogg was deeply engaged with purging the human race from inferior elements by what he called “biologic living.” He was an active player in the American eugenics movement that had significant ties to European thinkers who laid the foundation for fascism and nazism in the first half of the last century.

Whenever religion and politics mix, the dark side of human nature creeps to the fore and religion itself is transformed into the image of another master. Religious radicals (whether the Waco or ISIS variety) are driven by a combination of two things: 1) The absolute confidence that they are right, to the point that they are willing to die for every detail of what they believe. And 2) The answer to the world’s problems requires political and/or military action at some point. When these two elements are combined, it creates a toxic mix that can turn a peaceful religion into a monster that exhibits the character of Satan rather than the character of God. Is there any way out? To be concluded. . .

From Waco to Isis: The Theology Behind Jihad

As noted in the previous blog, islamic theology is quite fragmented due to 1) the lack of a central theological authority and 2) the inherent ambiguity of the Qur’an itself. I have noted several islamic streams of thought arising out of that ambiguity. But in the previous blog I left out one of them, the stream of islamic thought out of which the jihadist theology has arisen. Jihadist theology is rooted in the work of the 18th Century scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. He himself was not a “jihadist” in the contemporary sense of the term. But he advocated a strict, austere, “fundamentalist” view of Sunni Islam. This theology is sometimes called Wahhabism by its opponents and its followers today are called Wahhabis. They themselves prefer the term Salafists to describe themselves (following the salafi, those ancestors who best understood the practice and teaching of Muhammad).

Wahhab thought of himself as promoting a reform movement within Islam, going back to the original, desert religion, getting rid of “idolatrous practices” like visiting the shrines of saints, and instead restoring pure, monotheistic worship, free of human innovations. Salafists emphasize the life of Muhammad as seen through lives and thoughts of the earliest generations of Islam. Opponents, on the other hand, call the movement extreme and “pseudo-Sunni.” Through an alliance with the House of Saud, salafism plays a dominant role in Saudi Arabia and it is highly influential also in Egypt. But although salafism is an important part of the background for ISIS and other jihadists, it is not inherently violent. The jihad it pursues seeks to purify Islam through personal commitment and yields to God the timing of any spiritual or political revolution within Islam. Its adherents tend to withdrawal from modern society more than engagement with it.

In the 20th Century, the Egyptian branch of salafism produced a movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, that was more aggressive in engaging western thought than the original salafists had been. While they too appealed to the salafist understanding of Muhammad’s practice and teaching, they used Western language and spoke directly to modern-day concerns. The leading light of this emerging “Muslim Brotherhood” was a scholar named Sayyid Qutb (died 1966– emphasis on the first syllable and pronounce as if there is an extremely short “u” between the “t” and the “b”). While generally pacifist in the current situation, the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike the salafists, believes that at some point in the future, military jihad will be necessary and appropriate. The timing of that jihad is where the Muslim Brotherhood and the jihadists themselves differ. For the Muslim Brotherhood, military jihad is a future possibility, subject to God’s timing. For the jihadists, it is a present mandate. Since Sayyid Qutb’s brother, Mohammad Qutb, was Osama bin Laden’s mentor in Saudi Arabia, the theology of Sayyid Qutb is very important for understanding the jihadist mentality. Sayyid Qutb’s views can be found in his eighteen-volume commentary on the Qur’an entitled In the Shade of the Qur’an (available online at http://www.kalamullah.com/shade-of-the-quran.html).

What all Muslims rooted in Wahhabism agree on is the need for massive reform within Islam itself. The hyper-religious minority seeks “revival and reformation” in the more secular majority. So ultimately the actions of the terrorists are less concerned with the United States than they are with an in-house battle for the soul of Islam. When then attack the United States if terrorism is all about an in-house fight? Because the jihadists felt that the major barrier to Islam’s revival and reform was the corrupt “Muslim” governments that arose after the fall of colonialism in the Middle East (largely after World War II). These leaders arose from the “elites” that had aided the colonial powers originally and now controlled these “nations” after independence. And the nation that was keeping these powers in place with money and military aid (especially after the Suez war of 1956) was the United States.

The attacks on September 11 were designed to draw the United States more obviously into the Middle East to demonstrate its ultimate weakness to repeat what the colonial powers had achieved. If it could be proven to the islamic world that the United States is unable to dominate the islamic landscape, then the secular and corrupt leaders of the islamic world could be overthrown and a more religious system installed in its place. Westerners, including presidential candidates, need to understand how their words and actions may actually strengthen the hand of the terrorists within Islam itself. The very prejudices aroused by terrorism push moderate Muslims into the fundmentalist camp of the salafists, Muslim Brotherhood and radical jihadists. This is what the terrorists intended for September 11, Paris and San Bernardino. And to a large degree, they seem to be succeeding. To be continued. . .

From Waco to Isis: September 11, Part 2

As the reality of the Twin Towers’ collapse was made clear by repeated showings of the video, the magnitude of the tragedy began to sink in. This was my home town! These were my neighbors and friends. I just knew that somebody close to me must have been in those towers, must be in the rubble that was left of the towers.

Then it struck me! Rolf, a good friend from college days, had asked me what he and his family ought to do with a week in New York. I told him, “Whatever you do, make sure that you visit the observation deck of the World Trade Center and catch the view of New York.” September 11 was right in the middle of the week he was supposed to be visiting New York. I was distraught with concern but could do absolutely nothing about it. I had no way of contacting him from the Netherlands in the pre-cellphone age.

I took a little comfort when I remembered my advice, “On the day that you visit the downtown, get to the Statue of Liberty ferry first thing in the morning. That is the only way you might get the chance to climb all the way to the top of the statue. Then, when you get back to Manhattan, walk to the New York Stock Exchange and arrange for a tour later in the day. That way you’ll get to the observation deck of the World Trade Center in early afternoon, when the view is the best.” I realized that if he had followed my advice, he would be looking at the tragedy from Liberty Island, not crushed under the rubble! But I had no way of knowing where he was (I found out later that he was OK, but I didn’t know that for a couple of weeks).

My thoughts went back to the summer of 1999, when I did the same itinerary with my family. We got to the World Trade Center in the early afternoon. My wife decided to shop for a coat in Century 21 (she had been up the towers many times in the past), a discount designer store right next to the WTC, while the kids and I went up to the top of the South Tower, where you could go up on the roof and get an unobstructed view of the city far below. I would find out later that one of the towers had collapsed right on top of the store my wife had been in and destroyed it. We could all have been in there when it happened.

All that week in Holland I spent every available moment watching the updates on CNN. The next afternoon I went for a long walk to clear my head. I crossed a bridge over a set of locks on the nearby canal, watching as a houseboat was lowered to the next level. I then set off through fields of grazing cattle, dodging speedy Dutch bikers on a lovely asphalt path about four feet wide. The landscape was perfectly flat, broken only by occasional trees, the canal and a couple of ponds. It was hard to reconcile that prosperous and peaceful atmosphere with the turmoil still churning inside me. I found I had trouble meeting the eyes of those walking or biking the other way. I really didn’t want to meet anyone, or talk to anyone.

After a couple of miles I entered a small, peaceful town. I walked along the main street with cars and an occasional truck moving by. There was the typical Dutch country church, a small grassy square with tall trees, and neat, well-kept houses with little gardens along the sidewalk. Everything looked so tranquil and serene, it was a strong contrast to the news of a wider world. But it seemed like a great place to find some peace on a shattered day.

At the other end of town I walked past a small school with a grassy playground along the sidewalk. In the playground were about 60 small, blond schoolchildren, aged perhaps 5-9, with three or four adult chaperons. There was a chain-link fence about three feet high and a short hedge between me and the children. Once again a peaceful scene, this time of happy childs’ play.

A horrible thought suddenly struck me. What if I were a terrorist? What if I had brought a gun with me, hidden in my clothing? There was no security station on the way into town. Who could have stopped me? I shuddered that such thoughts would even enter my mind. It also dawned on me that no matter how many police, well-trained security teams, checkpoints or hardened defenses you put together you can’t prevent all acts of evil from occurring. What protected these children from me was not local security but my own inner conviction to do the right thing. Who in his or her right mind could do such a thing?

As the week went on I couldn’t get the images of September 11 out of my mind.  I was born and raised in New York City.  The Twin Towers were so much a part of the city that my mind and my heart kept telling me this was only TV, this was like the movies, this wasn’t really happening. But a few days later, on my return to the United States, we passed New York City at about 30,000 feet and the smoke was still rising from the southern tip of Manhattan Island. It had truly happened. New York City without the twin towers just didn’t seem the same.

All I could think of was that this deed had been done by crazy people. No one in their right mind would highjack a plane and then fly it into a building. Or would they? Eventually it was determined that the Al Qaeda organization of Osama bin Laden, supported by the Taliban government of Afghanistan, was responsible for the attacks. Who were these crazy people? It wasn’t long before I discovered that Osama bin Laden was far from crazy. And not only that, thousands, perhaps millions, of Muslims around the world seemed to feel that the attacks were somehow justified. . .

From Waco to Isis: September 11, Part 1

I landed at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam early on the morning of September 11. It was a beautiful sunny day and I quickly hooked up with the driver who was to take me to a conference a couple of hours drive away. The countryside was flat as a desktop, but interesting in a Dutch sort of way. After a nap, a walk and a little reading I headed for the dining room of the conference center around 5:30 PM (11:30 AM, New York time).

I always get a little nervous the first time I am in a large group of new people, particularly when most of them aren’t speaking my language. In this case the conference had about 900 attendees from all over Europe, from the Arctic Circle and Iceland in the north and west to Greece and Romania in the south and east. In that setting I was somewhat relieved that the dining room was not crowded. That meant I could eat by myself without seeming anti-social.
I was halfway through my meal, when a pastor from Croatia approached me. I remembered having seen him somewhere before and tried to be friendly in a dazed, jet-lagged sort of way. I was about to feel a lot more dazed. . . .
“Have you heard the news from America?” he asked.
“What news?” I grunted, thinking I might be in for more explanation than I cared to receive at that moment.
“I just heard that four passenger jets have crashed today in the United States,” he said excitedly.
“No way!” I said, “Such a thing has never happened before!”
“Two of them crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the towers collapsed, and another one crashed into the Pentagon!”
“World Trade Center collapsed? The Pentagon?” I was beyond confused, I was suspicious. One of the things I deal with in worldwide travel is all the wild and crazy rumors about stuff going on in America. People want to impress you with their knowledge of things and often they jump on reports that have no substance in the hope of impressing you. This was sounding like one of those times. “That’s impossible, you aren’t making this up are you?” In retrospect, I don’t think I was very nice to him.
“It must be true, I saw it on CNN. Go see for yourself. They have CNN on a big screen in the room just upstairs.”

I still didn’t know what to believe. I began to doubt my own reality. Perhaps I was still in a jet-lagged dream and would soon wake up in a bed somewhere in the Netherlands. But the food tasted real enough. I shook my head, trying to get the cobwebs out. I hurriedly finished my meal and dragged myself upstairs to the meeting room.

Several hundred people were crowded into the medium-sized room. Live feed from CNN was being projected onto a screen. Behind the CNN announcer was a view of the southern end of Manhattan Island in New York City. There was a huge cloud obscuring everything.

Although there were no seats available in the room, someone I knew motioned for the “New Yorker” to take his seat near the front in order to get a good view. I sat down and fixed my eyes on the screen for the next hour and a half. The nightmare continued. I peered intently at the screen looking for signs that the World Trade Center towers were still there. I couldn’t believe that they would have collapsed so easily. Then the network began repeatedly airing a new tape, showing the second airplane impacting the south tower, the fiery explosion that burst out the other side and the horrified cries of onlookers near the video camera. This was combined with repeated showings of panicked people running for their lives with a great billowing cloud of dust approaching rapidly behind them.

For me this scene cut deeper than for the hundreds of others watching with me. This was my home town. I grew up in New York. I had walked those very streets many times. No matter what perspective of the tragedy was being shown, I knew what I was looking at. I knew the likely location of the camera. I knew whether we were looking north, south, east or west. Then I considered what I knew about the World Trade Center. On a typical business day, about 50,000 people went to work in the twin towers. At any given time, several thousand tourists would also be there, going up to the viewing decks of the South Tower or the huge restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower. As the reality of the towers’ collapse was made clear by repeated showings of the video, the magnitude of the tragedy began to sink in. This was my home town! These were my neighbors and friends. I just knew that somebody close to me must have been in those towers, must be in the rubble that was left of the towers.

And at that moment I knew one other thing, the world would never be quite the same again. . .

From Waco to Isis: Eschatology and the “Rules of Engagement”

As time passed after Waco, I learned more about the theology of David Koresh. Koresh did not have much formal training in the Bible, but he had the ability to memorize large portions of the Bible and to explain in a convincing manner texts that puzzled most people, like the Seals and Trumpets of Revelation and chapter 11 of the book of Daniel. Koresh was particularly fascinated by the seven seals of Revelation. In many ways he was a man of contradictions. He could enforce strict dietary rules on his community, but break them on a whim. He could be lovable one moment and scary the next. He was funny sometimes and deadly serious at other times. He was very spiritual much of the time but could be quite carnal at other times. This led some to call him “the sinful Messiah.”

Koresh did not believe that he was Jesus Christ re-incarnated, as many have come to think, but he believed he was the end-time Cyrus (Koresh) who would come from the east (Isa 45:1-4; Dan 11:44-45; Rev 16:12) and be God’s final messenger on earth. He considered himself the last in a line of such messengers as Luther, John Knox, John Wesley, Ellen White and Victor Houteff, the founder of the breakaway Adventist movement (“Shepherd’s Rod”) that spawned the Branch Davidians. He reported that on a trip to Jerusalem in 1985, God gave him a vision of seven angels anointing him (the biblical Cyrus was God’s anointed messenger [Isa 45:1] as the last living prophet on earth. The Bible, in his view, was full of clues as to just when and how Jesus would return and how His people were to prepare. End-time salvation would come from believing Koresh’s message regarding the seven seals of Revelation (Rev 6:1 – 8:1), which he considered the last message to a lost world. The practical aspect of the message was to “endure to the end, no matter what the cost” (Matt 10:22), and so find end-time salvation. He was raising up an exclusive end-time people who would become God’s sole channel of salvation. They were the bearers of “present truth.”

As God’s last-day prophet, he anticipated a violent, apocalyptic end to his life. Death was not something he feared, he believed it was part of the path God had laid out for him. His death would come at the hands of end-time “Babylon” (Rev 17:1-5). He saw that Babylon everywhere; in mainstream religion, the US government, and even in his former spiritual home, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Apparently his view of God allowed him to believe that taking up arms to defend “the truth” was in harmony with God’s plan for the end of time. In this belief he deviated greatly from the end-time convictions of Seventh-day Adventists, who have been largely pacifist from the beginning. SDAs believe that deliverance in the end-time will not come from guns, but from direct deliverance by God.

In spite of many differences, his free-wheeling use of proof-texts from the Bible, interspersed with quotations from Ellen White, mean he was a bit more Adventist than most Adventists would like. The Branch Davidians kept the Sabbath, were vegetarians, abstained from tobacco, alcohol and most drugs, were constantly talking about Bible prophecy, and believed that the King James Bible was the only true and authoritative version. The Branch Davidians were culturally very similar to the most conservative of Adventists.

This came home powerfully to me when my family and I spent two weeks in New York City in 1999. As a family we stayed in a small apartment behind and above my childhood church, now called Church of the Advent Hope, in Manhattan. One evening the kids (12, 14 and 17 at the time) got a little bored, so I went down the street and rented the documentary “Waco: Rules of Engagement.” I had seen it at a scholarly conference (where I met James Tabor) some time before and thought they would find it interesting. The documentary includes footage of both federal attacks and also video from inside the compound between the two attacks (February 28 and April 19).

My children were not easily frightened by videos, but this documentary completely traumatized them. They couldn’t sleep the whole night afterward. When I questioned them about it later, they emphasized several things. The Davidians inside the compound talked and acted so “Adventist.” As children in Sabbath School they had been taught that the end-time persecution was coming, and it would affect them personally. To them the video was evidence that what they had been taught was beginning to happen. So when my children saw the charred bodies of Davidian children, they identified very strongly with them and feared that the end-time persecution was about to happen. Koresh in many ways deviated strongly from Adventism, but the similarities are troubling. While commitment and faithfulness are important things, in an end-time context they can be carried too far. And that reality will bring us eventually to ISIS, which also has some troubling similarities. . .

From Waco to Isis: My Own Personal “Near-Miss”

On February 28, 1993, scores of federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approached the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Their mission was to serve a search and arrest (to arrest Vernon Howell, aka David Koresh) warrant on weapons charges due to the large amount of weapons the Branch Davidians had accumulated. While the ATF would have preferred to arrest Koresh outside the compound, they were incorrectly told that he rarely left it. Surprise was lost when a mailman tipped off Koresh that the raid was coming. The Branch Davidians were armed and in defensive positions when the federal agents arrived around 9:45 AM. It isn’t clear whether the Branch Davidians or the federal agents fired first, it is likely an accidently discharge on one side or the other triggered the shooting on both sides. A cease-fire was arranged a couple of hours later, but by that time five Branch Davidians were dead (another was shot and killed trying to enter the compound that evening) and the ATF had suffered four dead and sixteen wounded.

The incident brought the Branch Davidians and their Seventh-day Adventist “cousins” into the international spotlight. In the course of the siege and after the its tragic conclusion on April 19, 1993, I was contacted by the BBC, CNN, ABC and NBC to answer questions about the situation. The roughest question came from a BBC reporter, “What is it about Seventh-day Adventists that breeds these kinds of people?” But the most disturbing phone call of all came in early March from a fellow Adventist, Dan Serns, at the Texas Conference. He told me that the FBI was looking for an Adventist scholar familiar with how Adventists think about the book of Revelation and the End-times to help in the negotiations with Koresh. To be honest, I wanted nothing to do with the situation, yet I felt that it would be wrong for me to ignore the request. I took the FBI number I was given and gave my contact information to Serns for them to call if they wanted to.

I called the FBI number three times but no one picked up. In retrospect I think my lack of enthusiasm for the potential assignment caused me not to try too hard to reach the federal authorities. As far as I know, the FBI never attempted to call. I wonder what would have happened had I tried a little harder. The role that I might have played was offered to James D. Tabor, a religious scholar at the University of North Carolina (Charlotte) and J. Philip Arnold, a religion scholar from Houston, Texas. From what I have seen in the media and my one meeting with Tabor six years later, they seem to have been good choices. They warned the federal officials that the harsh siege tactics they were using would only encourage the Branch Davidians to think this was a truly apocalyptic event with cosmic implications. The Davidians’ beliefs were sincerely held and they were willing to die for them. I understand that these scholars’ interpretations were convincing enough that Koresh was willing to leave the compound. But in the end, the advice to federal officials appears to have been ignored. The final assault began before the date Koresh had agreed to leave. The siege ended tragically on April 19 with the death of some 75 Branch Davidians when a fire broke out during the final assault using Bradley fighting vehicles (essentially tanks). Among the victims were 21 children.

I still wonder if I could have made a difference. Given the fact that Tabor and Arnold gave sound advice which was ignored anyway suggests it wouldn’t have mattered, but. . .

In this series I plan to compare the events at Waco with the “war on terror” and what we know about ISIS to note the similarities and differences. Many of the similarities are surprising. In the process I will draw implications for both Adventists and Muslims as they move forward into an uncertain future.