Lessons From Waco

THE standoff in Waco, Texas, between authorities and the Branch Davidian group enters its third week in what seems like a made-for-TV drama. The events leading to the shootout and deaths of four federal officers and as many as 10 Davidians have been much replayed since federal officers raided the Davidian compound to check for illegal firearms.

The story does have a mini-series-like aspect. Its central figure, Vernon Howell, calls himself David Koresh and has moved the small sect away from its own traditional values. He has referred to himself in messianic terms but indulges in immoral behavior.

This is, of course, not a TV drama but a human tragedy. The episode has been tragic for the law officers and their families - and also for the Davidians, who, while getting less public sympathy, have lost fellow members, are freezing in an unheated compound, face serious charges, and may have to yield legal custody of their children.

Less thought has been given to other dimensions of the story: The strain of Christianity out of which the Davidians come bears little relation to the Waco events. Following the shootout, it became all too easy to simply label the Waco group an "armed cult." As Washington Post editorial writer E. J. Dionne notes: "Words like fanatics and cults are being thrown around as if they explain all we need to know about the events in Waco."

Derek Davis, a professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco, observes the Davidian group lived "quietly and peacefully" outside of town for 40 years and was "quite devout."

The Waco Davidians' apparent misfortune was to become dominated by Mr. Koresh and his messiah fantasies. He turned them around: A rigidly pacifist sect, under Koresh's control they began to stockpile weapons. They condoned behavior they once considered immoral.

The question that haunts the current situation is: Could the tragedy have been avoided? More specific information is needed about why authorities raided the Waco compound the way they did - bringing in 150 armed men when they could have approached Koresh in a low-key way. Dr. Davis suspects federal officials accepted the simplistic picture of Davidians as a dangerous cult group and carried out the raid accordingly. Thus provoked, this is tragically how the group responded. Could it have been otherwise?

The American social and religious fabric is complex. It always has been. America was colonized by all sorts of splinter groups - Puritan, Quaker, separatist, millennialist. More awareness of the many different modern groups is needed.

None of this excuses the fatal actions of the Waco group, which will receive a full inquiry. At the same time, however, the public ought to distinguish between a sect that has lived and worshiped peacefully for years, and its unfortunate excesses under one leader.

The tragedy to avoid is a further erosion of regard for religious diversity in a country whose genius and grace has always been based on religious liberty.

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