Editor’s Note: This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Waco Siege that occurred from February 28 to April 19, 1993. Throughout the weeks, we have been sharing on the website the articles that appeared in the May 1993 edition (vol. 23, no. 1) of Spectrum concerning this tragedy.
This year the April Fool's issue of our Walla Walla student newspaper, the Collegian, included a half-page ad announcing an upcoming Revelation Seminar. The main feature of the event—David Koresh, of course, "who comes to us from beautiful Waco, Texas, where he has been playing guitar, getting married, and stockpiling arms as he prepares for the end of the world." The words aren't funny now. We were told in the media to expect a long siege so the children left inside the compound could be spared. But it's over now and they're dead.
I teach a course on the book of Revelation. I'd like to go on teaching Revelation as if nothing had happened. Wouldn't it be nice if I could just say that Mr. Koresh profoundly misunderstood Revelation, and let it go at that? But the Collegian ad suggests otherwise. The grapevine whispers that a half-dozen groups with Adventist connections will converge in Colorado to protest the pope during his visit in August. And this time it won't be so easy for me and other Adventists to distance ourselves from the interpretations of Revelation placarded before the world.
What can we salvage from Waco? The answers reveal yet another standoff—this time within Adventism—a standoff between those who see current events confirming Adventist interpretation of Revelation and those who see events like the Waco holocaust as confirming suspicion over the whole apocalyptic enterprise that has defined Adventism. In simple terms, we're in the midst of a standoff between those who attend Revelation Seminars and those who boycott them.
Were the followers of Koresh, faithful to death, precursors of a blind humanity soon to embrace the antichrist described in Revelation 13? Or were David Koresh and his flock an embodiment of the excesses of their Adventist heritage, too long grazing on the visions of Revelation? I hear both answers even among my students. Whether the Waco episode will promote much real dialogue among Adventists in general remains to be seen.
Most of my students come from a conservative Adventist perspective. Most of them consider Koresh one more sign of the end. Others, a minority to be sure, come to the course carrying questions about the way Adventists have been reading Revelation. Christians—both Protestant and Catholic, Muslims, and even Communists from China—attend our college and take my class on Revelation. Perhaps it is a matter of personality, but I do not consider my first responsibility in teaching this course to deconstruct my students' beliefs about the mark of the beast and the Catholic Church as much as to help them sort out what is spiritually and ethically virile from what they have acquired. I judge my first task to search for the common ground. Where is it? Has Waco widened or narrowed it?
I caught myself speaking in class about "Wack-o, Texas." As a self-evident truth we "know" ourselves to be different from the Waco enclave. "How could they be so gullible?" We wonder about the personality flaw that would allow David Koresh to mesmerize otherwise intelligent people. It's more than an Adventist defense mechanism. Christians have long distanced themselves from the Jews calling for Jesus' crucifixion. We have distanced ourselves from the Nazi guards and executioners in the camps of the Holocaust, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the supporting cast for the executioners were bona fide members of the Christian church. As an Adventist and a Christian, I shall try even harder to raise matters of moral courage and the responsibility to question authority systems, including my own.
In tomorrow morning's Revelation class we'll be discussing the seven seals without the benefit of Koresh's unfinished manuscript. Ought not the book of Revelation be indicted for inflaming a conscientious and unstable reader to imagine himself to be the Messiah filled with the wrath of the Lamb, who leads the powerful of the world to plead for rocks to cover them under the sixth seal?
Revelation does speak the language of violence. But only a skewed reading of Revelation would lead to the arming of the Davidian compound. The eye of the reader, prepared for the battle of Armageddon in chapter 16, is deflected at last from its execution, and must be content with a call of God to the birds of carrion in chapter 19 to consume the already slain carcasses.
Even more disappointing, the readers of Revelation are excluded from any wielding of the sword. God and the Lamb slay the wicked. All the others who take to the field in battle are excluded from the Holy City. Even the Holy City under siege is delivered by an act of God, not by any efforts by the besieged on their own behalf. Consistent with the rest of the New Testament, the readers are commanded to leave the matters of revenge and retributive justice in the hands of God and the Lamb. In spite of the vivid language against Babylon and the Beast, the book has no place for sanctified slayers or the stockpiling of weapons.
Koresh armed himself with guns and the Word. The government agencies responsible for protecting the rest of us matched his weapons of destruction. But in a wild moment of my own I imagine someone walking into the compound, armed only with the Word. The visitor expresses yet again the teachings of Jesus that forbade any follower of Jesus from taking up the sword to inflict the judgments of God. Surely one of us Adventists, steeped in the language of apocalyptic, could have tried. How do you reason with a madman writing himself into ancient texts? Weapons and a siege didn't work. Why not with prayer and the Word?
Were we Adventists so anxious to save our reputation from the embarrassment of Koresh that we missed an opportunity to save the lives of the children incinerated in the tragedy of Waco? We'll never know because we didn't try but left it up to Caesar's troops.
That standoff is over, but we could still work on resolving another one. This is an exciting time to be a religion teacher in an Adventist school. I find the range and vigor of views on Revelation expressed in Adventist periodicals refreshing. My student colleagues in this course on Revelation sit down with Mervyn Maxwell and Charles Teel. I invite them to listen to Roland Hegstad and Roy Branson, Dwight Nelson and Ottilie Stafford, Jonathan Butler and Roger Coon, just to mention a few voices within Adventism that have gone public on how Revelation ought to be read. That's because a college classroom is a place dedicated to a respectful and critical listening to different voices and to searching for the common ground.
What appears up to now to be lacking in this rich and diverse offering is evidence of dialogue. The present collection of views on Waco in this issue of Spectrum point in the right direction. I could wish for more. I wonder, do Roy Branson and Roland Hegstad, two Adventist editors who both take Revelation seriously but read it differently, ever talk about the book of Revelation and Adventist prophetic interpretation? I think it would make good copy. I'd love to read it in the Adventist Review.
Where in print can we find a single book intended to provide a representative expression of the diversity of interpretation within Adventism? The recent volumes published by the Biblical Research Institute on the book of Revelation offer the best collective case for a traditional Adventist interpretation of Revelation. Some of the articles are creative. But there's precious little space given to differing points of view. That apparently was not the purpose of the series. Thoughtful members with questions are tempted to dismiss these volumes out of hand.
On the other hand, a widely circulated letter from a contributor to the Biblical Research Institute's volumes excoriated Charles Teel's article on Revelation published in Spectrum—anarticle I invited my students to read along with the Biblical Research Institute's offerings. I'd like to see effort expended to find common ground. Others would prefer debate—I'd even settle for that. Why not a review of the Biblical Research Institute's volumes on Revelation in Spectrum?Years ago the now defunct Southern Publishing Association published a volume on perfection, with contributions by Edward Heppenstall, Herbert Douglass, and others. What Adventist publishing house would be willing to follow suit on the interpretation of Revelation?
This is not only an exciting time, but also a dangerous time to be teaching a course on Revelation in an Adventist college. On several North American Adventist campuses, biblical scholars studiously avoid teaching a course on Revelation. If more of the teaching of Revelation and Adventist apocalyptic interpretation is to be done by those with relevant academic training—and I, for one, believe that is a worthwhile objective—those of us who are called upon to do the teaching need help. What college students and other thoughtful young Adventists need are models of public discourse, where the views of others in the church different from our own are treated with respect and are taken seriously.
How we have dealt with our differences over Revelation is symptomatic of the difficulties we Adventists are having dealing with our differences over a wider front. I hope it's not too late for listening to points of view that seem incongruous or antiquated. Perhaps the barriers to understanding and trust are insurmountable. The standoff between those who attend Revelation Seminars and those who boycott them may be unbridgeable. But the Word promises that "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb…The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together….They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain" (Isaiah 11:6-9, RSV). In a wild moment, I imagine….
Further reading on the Waco tragedy:
Our Brothers and Our Sisters, April 19, 2018
Kissing Cousins or Kindred Spirits?, April 18, 2018
Did David Koresh Die for Our Sins?, April 17, 2018
Apocalyptic—Who Needs It?, April 10, 2018
Fundamentalism Is a Disease, a Demonic Perversion, April 8, 2018
Futuristic Highs at Mt. Carmel, April 4, 2018
One of David’s Mighty Men, March 28, 2018
The British Connection, March 14, 2018
Apocalypse at Diamond Head, March 7, 2018
God, Guns, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, February 14, 2018
The Making of David Koresh, February 7, 2018
Paradise Lost in Waco, February 5, 2018
We Didn't Start the Fire but the Tinder was Ours, January 31, 2018
New TV Series Premieres for 25th Anniversary of the Waco Tragedy, January 24, 2018
Beware of Wolves Disguised as Sheep, June 8, 2017
Death of a Branch Davidian Friend and Other Memories, April 19, 2014
Branch Davidians (and Adventists) Revisited in The New Yorker, March 30, 2014
My Trip to Waco, December 27, 2012
This article was written by Ernest J. Bursey for the May 1993 issue of Spectrum.
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