Answers In Action

The Feds Meet Self-styled "God's Anointed Avenger"

© 1992 by Gretchen Passantino.

This article first appeared in World Magazine
God's anointed met the enemy at Mount Carmel. From his sanctuary he watched more than 400 of his enemies prepare for the assault. He alone stood for the Lord, the Almighty, the only true God. He was confident that his enemies would fail. And when they did, he would fulfill God's avenging Will and slaughter them all. Self-styled prophet Vernon Howell (aka David Koresh) last week re-enacted Elijah's ancient stand against the prophets of Baal. Howell's standoff occurred at his cult's headquarters, "Mount Carmel," near Waco, Texas. Elijah's standoff had occurred on Mount Carmel in ancient Israel. When the Lord answered Elijah's prayers and not those of the prophets of Baal, Elijah slaughtered them all. As of this writing, Howell is still waiting for the Lord to answer him. FBI and ATF agents, having lost four ATF agents in their initial assault February 28, are prepared to stop any further slaughter.

Howell is no Elijah. His carefully constructed persona fails to mask his religious delusions. He adopted the name David Koresh to symbolize his belief that he is God's Anointed for today. David was God's anointed as the king of Israel; Koresh is a designation of the Persian king Cyrus, who was ordained by God (Isaiah 45:1) to authorize and finance the rebuilding of the Jewish temple after the Babylonian captivity (2 Chronicles 36). When outsiders, including the media and law enforcement call him "David Koresh" he says that proves even his enemies know he is God's Anointed. He claims to be Jesus Christ, the "Lamb" of Revelation 5, and God's avenger against the world.

A shy, reclusive ninth-grade dropout from Texas had evolved into a despotic cult leader, able to command hundreds of followers and hold off 400 federal agents for days outside his dusty Mount Carmel compound.

The Cult

Vernon Howell's cult traces its origin to 1929, when Bulgarian immigrant Victor Houteff, dissatisfied with his own Seventh Day Adventist church in Los Angeles, broke away and moved to Texas to start his own church, which he called "the Shepherd's Rod." The Seventh Day Adventists have a tradition, started by founder Ellen G. White, of accepting modern-day prophecy and of expecting the imminent return of Jesus Christ in judgment. Ironically, one of Houteff's contentions with the Seventh Day Adventist church was that it was not pacifistic enough -- he disagreed with its practice of approving member participation in the armed forces in noncombat positions.

At the beginning of World War II Houteff changed the group's name to Davidic Seventh-day Adventists. When he died in 1957, his wife, Florence, assumed control and prophesied that the Second Coming of Christ would occur by April 22, 1959. Florence resigned from leadership of her 1,400 member group when the prophesy failed.

The Davidic Seventh-day Adventists split during 1959, the core of the group remaining near Waco, Texas and eventually assuming the name "Branch Davidians" under the leadership of the Roden family. In 1981 Vernon Howell joined the group as handyman assistant to then-leader Lois Roden. In 1983, when Lois' son, George, assumed control of the group, Howell unsuccessfully fought him for control. Howell returned to the headquarters in 1987, led a gun battle against George, was acquitted of attempted murder charges, and assumed control of the group in 1988. From 1986 - 1991 he recruited new members in Canada, Hawaii, California, England, and Australia; and then concentrated on rebuilding and fortifying the headquarters compound, "Mount Carmel," during 1992.

Distinctive teachings of the Branch Davidians include that Howell is Jesus Christ, that they will be God's instruments to implement God's final judgment, that Howell, destined to be a martyr, is entitled to 140 wives, and that the Sabbath must be observed from sundown Friday through sundown Sunday.

The Man

Vernon Howell was born in 1960 and spent his childhood in Tyler, Texas. He was described as shy and reclusive, and diagnosed with "learning disabilities." He dropped out of school in the ninth grade, but claims to have memorized the New Testament by the time he was twelve.

At nineteen Howell was baptized into the Seventh Day Adventist church, but was asked to leave scarcely two years later because of behavior and scripture interpretation problems. That same year, 1981, he joined the Rodens' Branch Davidian sect.

Over the next seven years he grew into his later grandiose persona. He built his base of power, took over the sect, accumulated one legal wife (Rachel, then 14) and dozens of other women, and began preaching his version of the end of the world and the Last Judgment. He also pursued his lifelong love of hard rock music, associating with rock musicians, playing with different bands, and recruiting players for "God's" band.

Howell's dire predictions of coming warfare and his own martyrdom date to 1983 or 1984, when, according to one ex-member, "he was always teaching that he was going to be killed and going to be a martyr." Another ex-member recalled Howell's preoccupation with violence, recounting, "The night I met Koresh . . . he asked me, 'Would you die for Christ?' I said I guess so. He said, 'Would you kill for him?' I said no. He turned to my friend and said, 'Hey, you just brought me another weak Christian.'" The defense attorney for Howell and his followers in the trial over the 1987 gunfight with Roden remembered, "Vernon had told them that some day somebody was going to be coming for them, and that they better be ready."

Perhaps the most eerie connection between Howell and violence is his own interpretations of select Bible passages. He identifies himself with Elijah, who used God's power to defeat the false prophets of Baal at biblical Israel's Mount Carmel. He identifies with David, the king who subdued the enemies of God through warfare. He takes his last name, Koresh, a designation of the Persian king Cyrus, because he believes he, like Cyrus, is anointed by God to re-establish the true faith by destroying the ungodly. Most importantly, he identifies himself with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, especially as Christ is described in Revelation 5, 10, and 18 -- the avenging Son of God who will destroy all the unrighteous with his heavenly army. One of his favorite self-descriptions is from Isaiah 11:4 -- "He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked." Taking the language of Isaiah 63 and Revelation 18, he believes the "Day of Vengeance" has come, and he is the executioner.

The Shootout

The stage was set. Howell, now 33, the same age as Jesus at His death, worked by his own prophetic agenda. He was ready for war. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) agents, working a nine month investigation which involved informants, surveillance, and undercover infiltration, were convinced that Howell was stockpiling illegal weapons and explosives, and in addition was propagating illegal activities including child abuse and unlawful intercourse with minors (He is said to take new "wives" when they are between 11 and 14 years old). The plights of the women and especially the children gave the investigation more impetus, and the BATF made its move to serve search and arrest warrants around 9:30 a.m. Sunday, February 28.

Within forty-five minutes, four ATF agents were dead, 15 wounded, and three cult members were later confirmed dead. Howell himself claimed to have been shot in the abdomen. ATF spokespersons tried to explain the debacle, surmising that someone had tipped Howell off minutes before the raid, noting that they were unaware of the .50 caliber armor-piercing machine gun in the control tower, and also pointing out that, with so many women and children in the compound, they were unable to return fire through walls at unseen targets, while Howell's followers shot indiscriminately through walls at the agents.

After the initial assault, a cease fire allowed ATF agents to remove their dead and wounded, and the long standoff began. Nearby residents noted that Howell's followers had stockpiled supplies. FBI spokesmen noted that the compound was largely self-sufficient with its own wells and supplies, and the members used to doing without electricity or indoor plumbing.

Throughout the next five days, Howell and federal officials negotiated the intermittent release of 20 children and 2 adults. By Friday, March 5, 106 individuals were left inside the compound, including Howell. At first Howell had telephone access to the media and granted interviews to the Associated Press and CNN as well as other journalists. However, the FBI later cut his direct communication with anyone but them. Howell resorted to making promises in exchange for having his taped messages, delivered by children as they left, aired on radio. Tuesday, March 2, he promised everyone would surrender peacefully if his 58 minute audio cassette message was aired "nationally." Several Texas radio stations aired the message, a rambling, disjointed survey of dozens of disconnected Bible verses, but Howell rescinded his promise to give up. He declared that God had told him not to leave, and he would take further action only when God told him what to do. Given his teachings concerning violence and martyrdom, many ex-members and cult experts are concerned that the standoff cannot end without further bloodshed.

One hundred seemingly normal, rational people followed him to almost certain death. But as one person agreed, it's easy to suspend disbelief, to become caught up in a charismatic leader's vision, as one person put it, "When you first see him. . . you think, 'Who's this guy kidding?' But when he's talking, it's like something comes over you and you get swept up with it. A little bit of charm and you get to the point where you believe this, you believe that, and you come so far, it's just that you believe all of it." And the world sits, mesmerized by live television coverage and screaming newspaper headlines, swept up ourselves, unwittingly, into one madman's vision of the end.

Gretchen Passantino

Lessons from Waco

By Gretchen Passantino

Copyright 1992 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino. Reproduction or publication of the content in any manner, without express permission of the author is prohibited.
This article first appeared in World Magazine
With excruciating deliberation, the FBI executed successive steps toward peacefully ending their armed standoff with Branch Davidian cult members near Waco, Texas. They called on years of hostage negotiation experience, panels of forensic psychology experts, teams of crisis intervention specialists, numerous religious, biblical, theological, and cult advisors, and the best anti-terrorist authorities. Step-by-step they narrowed the compound perimeters, restricted outside contacts, disrupted sleep and daily habits, and pressed the hoped-for peaceful resolution.

But on Monday, April 19, David Koresh and 86 Branch Davidians, including up to 24 children, died in a firestorm of gunfire, propane, lantern oil, and exploding munitions. Nine adults survived the end to the tense 51 day siege begun February 28 when Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents were attacked attempting to serve arrest and search warrants at the compound for illegal arms and ammunition. In that initial skirmish four ATF agents were killed, 15 wounded, and perhaps as many as 10 cult members were killed.

As congressional hearings continue and federal officials investigate, the religious aspects of the Waco disaster will be an important part of their deliberations. Were Koresh's religious convictions weighed heavily enough? Were his followers' fanatical loyalty and resultant actions properly guaged? Was there any way religious insight could have saved lives?

Most agree Koresh's religious convictions were accurately considered. Koresh was convinced that he was the Lamb of God, that God had appointed him the executor of God's judgment, and that he and his followers were destined for firey, deadly battle. Koresh's last two letters, included challenges such as "I AM your God and you will bow under my feet . . . I AM your life and your death. . . . Fear Me, for I have you in My snare."

Religious researcher Phillip Arnold attempted to convince Koresh of an alternate, non-violent understanding of apocalyptic scriptures Koresh applied to the siege. Koresh's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, tried to negotiate a peaceful surrender. And yet neither produced any wavering by Koresh from his personal Armaggeddon. As FBI lawyer Danny Coulson remarked, "Inside [the compound] he's God. Outside, he's an inmate on trial for his life. What was he going to do?"

Even given the inevitability of Koresh's self-destruction, there is some indication that the FBI could have anticipated more accurately the final results through more accurate religious analysis. The FBI was confident the Davidian mothers instinctively would send their children out of the way of the tear gas and demolition, and yet their calculations did expect the mothers' absolute conviction that sending their children out would be to destine them to death at the hands of the enemy. A Justice department official, speaking with the clarity of hindsight, remarked, "This wasn't a normal hostage situation. . . . Not only were they there, they were willing to do anything for this person."

The Branch Davidians believed Koresh's prophecies concerning the inevitability of their martyrdom by fire. Koresh's favorite apocalyptic scriptures speak of destruction (Revelation 11:5), judgment (Revelation 8:5), and cleansing by fire (1 Corinthians 3:13-15). Koresh often compared himself to the prophet Elijah, who challenged the prophets of the fase gods in ancient Israel. He told the story of how Elijah dared the enemies to display divine power through their sacrifices. They failed, and the true God Yahweh sent fire from heaven to consume Elijah's sacrifice on Mount Carmel. The false prophets fled, only to be slaughtered by Elijah. Koresh was their Elijah, they were the sacrifice, and the federal forces were the false prophets destined for destruction. Whether or not the Davidians set the initial fires, they found themselves cast in the divine drama prefigured by Elijah and consumated by David Koresh. In the end, whether they welcomed the flames or were forced by Koresh's indominatable will, there was no escape.

Could the FBI have devised some alternative designed to frustrate fulfillment of Koresh's fire images? Perhaps. Attorney General Janet Reno said, "based on what we know now, obviously [what we did] was wrong." But the playwright of the drama wrote only one ending: death and destruction.

We will learn from this tragedy. Law enforcement, psychologists, politicians, talk show hosts, and bureaucrats will suggest legislation, policies, and plans to prevent another Mount Carmel, just as they did after 1978's mass deaths of 913 Peoples' Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana. But laws and strategies don't use the most powerful weapons we have as members of a free society: individual commitment to rationality and personal religious responsibility.

Gretchen Passantino

The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26

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