The Legacy of Waco
Amity & Sorrow came out in the US on the 20th anniversary of the siege on the Waco, Texas compound of the Branch Davidians, or Students of the Seven Seals as leader David Koresh wanted them known. The seven seals are to be broken at the end of the world, according to the Book of Revelation, and the community was prepared for it. They had been waiting for years. When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms turned up with a search warrant, looking for the stash of guns that local sheriffs said, years earlier when Koresh took the leadership by force, had numbered “more than a Vietnam patrol”, gunfire broke out and both sides blamed the other. They still do. A fifty-day standoff began.
I was inspired by events in Waco and America’s history of intervention in faiths and cults. In a nation founded by religious radicals, our constitution values the separation of church and state, but they are rarely separate. God is on our money; faith is in our schools, courthouses and senate. Any presidential candidate ignores prayer at his electoral peril. The Puritans and Quakers who founded the first colonies came in search of religious freedom, prepared to fight for it. Guns and God go hand in hand. We expect authorities to defend our right to worship, but we also expect them to protect the vulnerable. How can the government know which faiths to defend – and which to raid? What happened in Waco was a tragedy, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. It was there in the church’s name – Ranch Apocalypse. After the siege and fire, the new director of the ATF, John Magaw, was highly critical of the raid. New training manuals were put into place for recruited agents. In future, “dynamic entry” would only be planned “after all other options have been considered”.
Fifteen years later and 400 miles down the road would be the site of the next raid on a religious compound, the Yearning for Zion Ranch, home to 700 polygamous families and the followers of the FBI’s Most Wanted, Warren Jeffs. As the Branch Davidians are a splinter sect of the Seventh Day Adventists, so these fundamentalists split from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the LDS Mormon church proper. These two contemporary faiths are all that survive of America’s Second Great Awakening, the early 19th century boom of ecstatic, evangelical Protestants.
The lessons learned in Waco would affect the choices made in the YFZ raid. This time, there would be no stand off or protracted negotiations with the leader, already in prison. There would be no psychological torture, no barrage of lights, music or helicopters as in Waco. This time, authorities simply swooped in and removed their children. All of them. The people had been raided before, sixty years earlier in Short Creek, Arizona. It taught the FLDS that the government took children and could not be trusted. Unlike Waco, there was no violence, no siege or fire, but there could have been. Perhaps it is a blessing that the bulk of the community was young and female; it is why the ranch was raided, of course, but in a faith where girls aren’t trained to use guns it meant the faithful didn’t use the huge caches of weapons, everything from bows to assault rifles, that were hidden in their Temple annex. Had the faith not banished their young men, or had a more balanced ratio of male to female, the raid on YFZ might have ended very differently.
Both Koresh and Jeffs led isolated and eschatological faiths, anti-government and fully armed. Both faiths practiced polygamy in the face of government opposition and public distaste. In FLDS culture, three wives are necessary to attain the highest level of heaven. Jeffs currently has 78 wives and is serving a life sentence for sex offences with minors. David Koresh took twenty wives, but said God told him to take another 120. We shouldn’t care if plural wives give their consent. The problem is with the age of the women, young women. Both Koresh and Jeffs took underage brides of fourteen, thirteen, twelve. They believed themselves appointed and anointed by God; they believed these to be holy marriages. They had to be holy, of course, to make them “acceptable” to their own followers.
What of their children, raised in a faith that was persecuted by the government they had been taught to hate? What of the children of Waco who watched their government burn their families on TV? What of the children of YFZ, traumatized by the government’s tests and assumptions, slowly being reunited with mothers who were found to be of age. Will they grow up with the same disdain for the government that their ancestors got from Short Creek or from the government persecution that split their church? Is this where activism will be born? Will we see more militaristic and anti-government Christian mavericks in the future, just as Timothy McVeigh was “inspired” to murder on Waco’s second anniversary? Is this any different to the anger instilled in the children of Islam when their mosques and madrasas are destroyed? We are wrong to interfere in matters of faith that are consensual or to make judgments about others’ beliefs, no matter how repugnant they may be to us, personally. Our constitution grants that freedom; no laws can define what we believe in or how we choose to worship. When we raid churches and take children, thinking we save them, we also do great harm.
Today in YFZ, the followers of Warren Jeffs await the end of the world at his command, from a payphone in the state prison in Palestine, Texas. The world is always about to end. But what is beginning, in other secret splinter sects, among the hidden churches and handmade faiths of America? Are the next young men – for they are surely always men – already hearing voices, the boom of God calling them to fight? Do they watch raids unfold, note the passing of anniversaries that remind us of our deeds and shortcomings, and learn anew to fear and to hate?