Tag Archives: Waco

From Waco to ISIS: The Road Back to Sanity, Conclusion

What is the biblical response to religious violence? I would suggest at least two things. First, it is important for every follower of God to be aware of their own ignorance in spiritual matters. There are some things we can know about God, but there are also many things we don’t know for sure (Deut 29:29). In many religious groups certainty is a higher value than truthfulness. People won’t necessarily admit that or even be aware of it. But as you observe their interactions with others it becomes clear that once they have made up their minds, people of differing opinions become the “enemy.” But this behavior flies in the face of Scripture and is a symptom of human pride.

The apostle (Rom 11:13; 1 Cor 9:1-2; 15:9) Paul was one of the great thinkers of the Christian church. Among other things, apostles were the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament prophets (Luke 11:47-50; Eph 2:19-22). God spoke to Paul in visions (2 Cor 12:7-10), so he was an inspired writer, who was later added to Scripture (2 Pet 3:16). Nevertheless, Paul makes this startling and candid admission: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor 13:9, KJV, ESV, NIV). Although Paul received special revelations from God, he was ready to admit that his knowledge was partial and even his prophesyings were partial. Full knowledge of spiritual things is not a present reality, but something attainable only in eternity (1 Cor 13:12). This conviction harmonizes with the teaching of Jesus, which include the assertion, “I have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now” (John 16:12). It is healthy to have religious convictions and act on them, but when those convictions lead one to kill people in the name of God, something very twisted has occurred in the name of conviction.

From an Islamic perspective, a similar caution can be found in the Qur’an itself (Al ‘Imran 3:7): “It is He Who has sent down to you the Book. In it are verses that are entirely clear, they are the foundation of the Book: others are not entirely clear. But those whose hearts deviate (from the truth) follow that which is not entirely clear. They seek discord and search for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its true meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:’ and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.” From this passage it is clear that absolute certainty in religious matters can lead one to deviate from the truth by seizing on hidden meanings which God did not intend.

A second response to religious violence is to understand that the divine answer to the world’s problems is not political, financial or military. Whenever religion mixes with politics and economics, true religion is the loser and human pride is exhibited in corporate ways. The spirit of Jesus, taken from His own testimony in court, is clearly stated in John 18:36, NIV: “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.’” Peter somehow missed the memo and endangered Jesus’ legal defense by his violent actions in Gethsemane (John 18:10-11). The true religion of Jesus does not live by the sword. His kingdom comes from another place. Jesus spoke even more pointedly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:43-45, NIV): “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Ultimately, behind religious violence is a picture of God as a violent, blood-thirsty tyrant. Jesus here says that those who love their enemies are like their Father in heaven. That is what God is really like. He is really like the One who was beaten, slandered and killed, yet said “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In the words of Jesus, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 14:9).

From an Islamic perspective, the violent approach to religion should struggle much more to reconcile itself with statements like the following in the Qur’an (Al Nahl 16:125-128): “Invite all to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. For thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance” (16:125). This text suggests trusting the outcome of one’s witness to God, who alone truly knows the heart. Violence takes away another person’s choice and implies that God is pleased with forced submission. “And do thou be patient, for thy patience is but from Allah” (16:127). The key here is the character of God. The Muslim’s religious convictions cannot ignore the fact that the core portrayal of God’s character is as the merciful and compassionate One (Al Fatiha 1:1, repeated in the opening line of nearly every sura in the Qur’an). We are to be merciful, patient and compassionate to those who disagree, because that is what God is like. “Allah is with those who restrain themselves, and those who do good” (16:128). There are times and places where communities may need to defend themselves. But such actions are “emergency measures,” they are not for the purpose of exhibiting the character of God. Such actions, even when necessary, are to be regretted. They are not the substance of true religion, even for Muslims. To murder innocent people “in the name of Allah” is to bring shame and disrepute on God Himself. Such actions do not draw unbelievers to God, they drive them away in disgust.

Whether one is an Adventist or a Muslim, the solution to religious violence is centered in two things, humility and the character of God. Humility arises not out of God’s limitations, but ours. Humility is simply recognizing the truth about my own limitations. My ignorance about God is greater than my knowledge about Him I have many things to learn and many, many to unlearn. To take the life of another on the basis of my own understanding of truth is foolish arrogance in the extreme. Words fail.

The centrality of the character of God is evident at the heart of both Adventism and Islam. The central question at the heart of Islam is “What matters at the end of life?” When you come to the end of your life or the end of the world, what will truly matter? Will you wish you had played more video games? Will you wish you had binge-watched more TV series? Probably not. The Islamic answer to the question is found in two things: What really matters is God and good works. In other words, the two things that truly matter in Islam are submission to God (the word “islam” in Arabic means “submission”) and developing a character that does the things that please Him (good works). At the core of Adventism one finds the same basic question and the same answers. If you read the Conflict of the Ages Series from Ellen White, it begins and ends with the phrase “God is love.” The character of God is what the whole thing is about. And the same Adventist author says that the one thing we will take with us into eternity is our character (DA 331; RH, Dec 13, 1892).

The ultimate “jihad” is not political or military, it is a battle for the mind and the heart. Muhammad seems to have understood this principle, in spite of all the literal battles he chose to or had to fight. It is reported that after one campaign he announced to his soldiers. “We have now completed the lesser jihad. We now go home to the greater jihad.” The battle of faith is not about guns and tanks and fighter planes, it is the battle to control ourselves and to love one another. For sinful humans beings hurting others is relatively easy, controlling ourselves is difficult. If religion is to mean anything in this world, it must make us better people than we would be without it. Our study of Waco and ISIS does not suggest that they offer promising paths toward peace and self-control. Turning the other cheek is a true miracle that you won’t find in Waco or Raqqa (capital of the Islamic State). Genuine religion is more needed than ever in this world.

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: What Is So Appealing About ISIS?

For people in the West it is hard to understand why perfectly normal teen-agers or young adults who grew up in England, Germany or the US would leave such privileged lives and places to travel to what seems a repressive backwater filled with harshness and cruelty. They exchange comfortable lives for danger, combat and an uncertain future (people asked some of the same questions with regard to Waco). What could possibly be so attractive about ISIS?

One has to understand the power of eschatology, a compelling vision of the future. The eschatology of ISIS is grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith, the normative sources of truth in popular Islam. In a sense, ISIS is almost like a “Back to the Bible” movement in Christianity. People are called to exchange modern values for a vision based on the original sources of Islam. The goal of ISIS is the re-establishment of the caliphate, the form of government that existed in the early centuries of Islam. The caliphate is somewhat like what scholars of the Bible call a theocracy, when a nation is ruled directly by God through a judge or a king (see the biblical books from Joshua through 2 Chronicles). The idea of the caliphate is similar to what modern-day Israel would be like if it consistently implemented and enforced the laws of Moses today.

In order to establish a caliphate, you need a trans-national entity (ISIS only declared a caliphate after expanding its territory out of Syria and into Iraq, thus evaporating the long-standing border between the two) that fully implements islamic law (Sharia). And the ruler of that entity must be an adult male of Qurayshi decent (the tribe of Muhammad) and a person who exhibits morality and integrity. The Turkish Empire declared itself a caliphate from the 14th through the 19th Centuries, but it never truly applied islamic law, so purists today don’t consider the Ottoman Empire a true caliphate. Followers of ISIS believe that they have a true caliph in the man who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Why is Sharia (islamic law) so attractive to many Muslims? For one thing, it is guidance for a whole way of life. It offers clarity in how to live and how to behave, and such clarity is very attractive to some personalities. More than this, life under Sharia is portrayed as a secure existence. All citizens of the Islamic State get free housing, clothing, food and medical care. In other words, all the basic human needs (1 Tim 6:6-9) are taken care of, no questions asked. The health care include full vision and dental care at no cost. If a citizen of the Islamic State requires specialty care in Turkey or Europe, that is fully paid as well. Those who wish to are free to seek riches through business or employment, but basic needs are cared for regardless.

The goal of the Islamic State is to establish a spiritually pure community. One way to accomplish that is medieval-style punishments, which provide a strong motivation to toe the line. Included in the ISIS theocracy is execution or enslavement for unbelievers. Where things get really dicey is that for ISIS most Muslims are counted as unbelievers, hence the shocking cruelties toward captured people of nearly all backgrounds. Nevertheless, the sense of spiritual certainty is very attractive to some personality types (as witnessed at Waco), in spite of the abuse that often comes with it.

The core of ISIS’ attraction to many muslim youth is its vision of the “apocalypse.” According to ISIS, the Islamic State is written into God’s script for the end-time. According to the scenario, there will be 12 legitimate caliphs in the course of islamic history. Baghdadi is considered the 8th in this line. The goal is to establish a trans-national state (combining at least two currently accepted nations). For this two work geographically, two “failed states” (where central authority has broken down or disintegrated, as in Somalia) need to be located next to each other. Syria and Iraq now qualify.

For ISIS eschatology, the establishment of the Islamic State will draw out the opposition of “Rome” (in the 7th Century that was the Byzantine Empire). The armies of “Rome” (representing Europe and the USA today) will mass in northern Syria. There will be a great battle in the region of Dabiq (NW Syria, the islamic equivalent of the biblical Megiddo). In that battle the Islamic State will be victorious. The caliphate will expand, capturing Istanbul and Jerusalem. At that point the Antichrist (called Masih ad-Dajjal in Arabic, or “false [dajjal] Messiah”) will arise, probably in eastern Iran. His forces will destroy vast numbers of Islamic State fighters. Dajjal will corner the last 5000 ISIS fighters in Jerusalem. At that point Jesus, the true Messiah, will return to earth, kill Dajjal and lead the Islamic State to the final victory.

In this kind of scenario, defeats may only encourage people to join ISIS because they will be fulfillments of the prophecy. So military solutions for defeating ISIS as an ideology have their limitations. ISIS is a theology that thrives on defeat. Every setback is confirmation that the scenario is true and will be fully fulfilled at the end. In fact, ISIS soldiers were excited recently when they heard reports that American soldiers had been spotted in a battle. They fully expect a coalition of Americans and Europeans to attack them. That will be a sign to them that the battle of Dabiq is at hand. It would likely draw even more fighters to ISIS from around the world.

So defeating ISIS through traditional political or military strategies may not work. The scenario would only be undermined if ISIS was defeated by Turks, Jordanians and Iraqis. Al Qaeda never appealed to muslims generally the way ISIS has. It has always hidden in the shadows. The power of ISIS lies in its eschatological vision combined with the seizure of territory. The ISIS idea can only be defeated by an equally compelling islamic vision. I will explore what that vision might be like in the concluding blog(s) of this series.

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: The Roots of Radical Jihadism

My initial impression after September 11 was that it was the work of “crazy people,” people suffering from a deep mental illness of some sort. But as profiles of the terrorists emerged, that scenario was not supported. Instead, the actions of bin Laden and his cohorts on September 11 were a carefully crafted irregular type of warfare (which is why the word “attack” is often used for terrorist actions). And that warfare was grounded in a view of history quite different from the view traditionally taught in Western schools. The opening salvo of that new war was met with far more approval from sane and rational people in the islamic world (from Morocco to Malaysia) than I would have imagined. Why was that the case? I began researching Islam and the Qur’an, looking for the roots of radical Islam. It would be unfair to assume that the terrorists were normal, everyday Muslims, just as it was unfair to assume that Koresh was a normal, everyday Adventist. Nevertheless, in each case, their disturbing view of the world was heavily grounded and justified by important islamic and Adventist ideas respectively. But before we get to the religious ideas behind the jihadist actions, I will begin with an analysis of history from the islamic perspective.

From the islamic perspective, the root of most problems in the islamic world are the result of colonialism. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire (based in modern-day Turkey but extending from North Africa into central Asia) after World War I, the victorious European powers (England, France, Italy) divided up the former Ottoman lands into artificial “countries,” whose boundaries were chosen by outsiders with little or no sense of the impact on the ground. For example, the new colonial boundaries ignored tribal connections. The Hashemite tribe extends from modern-day Jordan deep into western Saudi Arabia. But the colonial borders split the tribe in half. The Houthi tribe was split between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And pertinent to the formation of ISIS, the Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq was split into eastern Syria and western Iraq. What had once been natural communities were now divided into different countries with all the barriers to travel and divided loyalties that could arise from that.

Similarly, the colonial borders also ignored religious divisions and connections. The main body of Shiite Muslims live in an arc running from Iran to Lebanon. But in the heart of this Shiite arc is a strong contingent of Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority in Syria and western Iraq, but are a minority in Lebanon and Iraq as a whole. Although a minority within the arc, Sunnis in Syria and Iraq are supported by their compatriots in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But to make it even more complicated, within this volatile Sunni-Shia mix are a significant element of secularized Arabs who are not completely comfortable with either Sunni or Shiite militancy. It is doubtful if any system of borders in the Middle East could fully accommodate this complexity, but it is clear to jihadists that the borders instituted by the Western powers do not serve islamic interests and should be considered null and void.

A further aspect of colonialism that still impacts things today was the tendency of the European powers to rule these “countries” through a social elite. Rather than installing true democracies, the colonialists ruled through local elites (people already recognized locally for their wealth and influence) who were often Western educated and generally supported the colonial powers in exchange for additional wealth and power. This approach created a serious divide between the mass of common people and the authorities (such as tribal chiefs) who had once ruled by popular consent but now were in power as the “lackeys” of foreign oppressors. Colonialism drove a wedge between the people and their traditional leaders, planting the seeds of rebellion and revolution.

Opposition to the colonial powers came from two main sources. The first group of opponents were the “pan-Arabists,” who were secular and dreamed of a “United Arab Republic,” a “United States” of the Arab peoples who dominate the landscape from Morocco to Iraq. Their goal was to overthrow the colonial powers and replace them with a home-grown Arab version of the secular West (or at times the Communist ideology). The big pan-Arabist name in the middle of the Twentieth Century was Gamal Abdul Nasser, who for a time ruled Egypt and Syria, calling the combined states the United Arab Republic. Figures like him were replaced with the current generation; al-Sisi in Egypt, Yasser Arafat in Palestine, King Hussein in Jordan, Bashar Assad in Syria, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The second group of opponents to colonialism were the “pan-Isalmists,” whose vision was based in the islamic religion and thus transcended ethnicity. Pan-Islamists dreamed of a “caliphate” (an islamic version of Israel’s theocracy– direct rule by God) which would expand far beyond the Arab world, including Muslim-dominated countries all the way to Malaysia and Indonesia. While the pan-Arabists centered their goals on a society run by and for Arabs, the pan-Islamists centered their goals on a society ruled by islamic principles. The biggest islamic “success story” in the Twentieth Century occurred first in Saudi Arabia and then, after 1979, Khomeini’s Iran. In these countries a board of islamic clergy had ultimate veto power over elected or appointed governments.

Those who were promoting islamic rule were not crazy. There was a deep and penetrating analysis of reality behind it. We cannot even begin to deal with the jihadist mentality unless we understand the theology and the philosophy behind it. Next time. . .

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.