The power of belief can lead to tragic consequences

Liverpool Daily Post, UK/December 10, 2007

Amid the attractive campus of Liverpool Hope University lies the newly-refurbished Alexander Jones post-graduate research depart- ment, which exudes a sense of peaceful learning, as autumn winds tremble the surround- ing ancient trees in Childwall.

It's a long way from the sun-baked dusty Texas scrubland where the most notorious modern-day religious sieges took place. Yet based at Hope is one of the leading international experts on the Waco siege and massacre.

Hope's Pro-Vice Chancellor, the Rev Prof Kenneth Newport's book, The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect, explores the tragedy's roots.

In February, 1993, the Unit- ed States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) attempted to search the Branch Davidian ranch, at Mount Carmel, near Waco, believing the sect were gun-trading after reports of hearing gunfire. The ATF used cattle trucks for the raid and the resulting shoot-out caused four agents and six Davidians to die.

This led to a 51-day siege by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The siege ended on April 19 when the complex was destroyed by fire and 76 people died (including 21 children and two pregnant women) plus Davidian leader David Koresh. Witnessing the event was Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, who fatally struck on Waco's second anniversary.

The Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventist Church was formed in California, in 1929, breaking away from its parent church and moving to Mount Carmel, near Waco. Here, Davidians believed the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would occur.

"With my Biblical studies' background, I became interested in why the Book of Revelations was interpreted so widely over the centuries by different religious communities," says Prof Newport. "The text can mean practically whatever you want and David Koresh, the Davidian leader who thought he actually was Christ, was profoundly influenced by this."

The Waco Massacre remains high in the American consciousness, due to its inconclusive nature. Prof Newport says: "I take a midpoint view and am not anti-FBI, but the ATF made a single appalling mistake in trying to raid Mount Carmel when the Davidians knew.

"Incredibly, the ATF lost its advantage of surprise as a news reporter, who had been tipped off on the raid, asked for directions from a postman, who coincidentally was Koresh's brother-in-law.

"Koresh was not a religious maniac who brainwashed his zombified followers, but there is overwhelming evidence that the Davidians set fire to themselves. If not true, there's been a massive, near- impossible official cover-up," says Prof Newport.

"Besides, the Davidians expected the creation of a latter-day anti-typical kingdom, reflecting that of King David in Biblical times. Before that happened, the community would go through some sort of cleansing fire (in which they must die), as in Revelations 19, to come back riding on white horses, resurrected as different beings.

"So, right from day one, a catastrophic and tragic outcome was likely. Koresh had quoted from the Book of Luke that they were expecting to use weapons."

The key quotation which formed the mainspring of what happened is in Revelations, Chapter 13, verses 11-18, where a beast is described as rising out of the land - it has two horns and looks like a lamb, but spoke like a dragon. This interpretation dates back to the Seventh Day Adventists in 1844.

"Apparently, they believed this dragon beast was the prophetic figure of the US government, initially looking benign, but which could turn very belligerent and stamp out God's people," says Prof Newport. "When I asked a survivor about the raid and siege, he said when they saw the cattle trucks gathering they thought it was the lamb-like beast's arrival.

"One of the most chilling parts is an extract from the FBI's bugging tapes with Koresh's deputy Steve Schneider (who also died) saying, 'Well, you always wanted to be a charcoal briquette'."

Yet there are lessons to be learned. Prof Newport says: "Never underestimate the power of belief and theology. People will give up everything they have, lives included, to die for their beliefs."

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