My studies have taken a brief detour from the agrarian path. Catching up on some weblogs, I saw that my friend John VanDyk had recently seen a documentary called Waco: Rules of Engagement, and recommended it. I remembered hearing good things about the film when it came out in 1997. I think the filmmakers had some connection with Austin, where we lived at the time. But even though it was shown regularly at a local theater, I never got around to seeing it. So I ordered a copy of the DVD, along with a copy of Dick Reavis’s book The Ashes of Waco. (Reavis was a regular writer for the excellent magazine Texas Monthly, and I admire his work a lot.)
I am only partway through The Ashes of Waco, but it shouldn’t take me long to finish it because it makes for quick and engrossing reading. I did finish watching the DVD, but it took two nights; one of the hard parts was picking a place to stop around halfway through, since the film had just begun to chronicle the siege.
The film is very well done, with two caveats. First, the filmmakers do not try to make their presentation of the case even-handed; they have a particular point of view, and without any shrillness or obvious unfairness to the other side they concentrate on making their own case. Second, I knew too much already about Waco to be able to judge whether it would be easy for someone without that knowledge to follow the film; I do remember that at a number of points I didn’t think they had explained things clearly enough.
I think it’s good to study an incident like the siege at Waco, where the government used its power against a small religious group with oddball beliefs and practices. In this case it was the Branch Davidians, a fifty-year-old splinter group of Seventh-Day Adventists who lived communally and thought their leader David Koresh was one of the last-days prophets spoken of in the Book of Revelation. The average American—probably even the average evangelical—would not see much difference in strangeness between the Davidians and the reconstructionists, back-to-patriarchy types, Gothardites, Ezzo-ites, Pearl-ites, or even Christian agrarians—really, anyone who seems to take their Bible too seriously.
Which is why those of us who take our Bible pretty seriously should be sobered by what happened at Waco. The official reasons for why the Davidians were targeted—weapons stockpiling, child abuse—were trumped up. The Davidians were amateur gun dealers, as are thousands of other Texans; as one person put it, what the feds call a stockpile, most of these folks would call inventory. And while David Koresh was a polygamist, Texas Child Protective Services had been investigating allegations against Koresh for years without finding enough evidence to make a case against him.
The lesson I take from this is that if the authorities take a dislike to you, there isn’t much protection to be found in the legality of your lifestyle. Some folks who skirt the edges of normal social conduct are strangely confident that once they get to court justice will prevail—the judge to hear them out, suddenly recognize the truthfulness of their defense, slap his forehead, and order their handcuffs to be removed. Many folks choose Virginia as a home because the law exempts those who homeschool for religious reasons from any and all state supervision. I’ve read the statute, and it says that quite clearly. But I also know a homeschooling family that was harassed by their local school board even after claiming that exemption. Just because they were clearly legal didn’t make the harassment any less real.
Given that, the question posed by the Waco siege is this: how far should you go in resisting unjust authority? I’ve hung around with otherwise sensible guys who would wallow in macho posturing, speaking of the day when government thugs lay prostate halfway up the driveway, shot dead by a heroic father who will do what it takes to protect their family from the clutches of Child Protective Services. I never knew what to make of such talk. On the one hand, I know a father is responsible for his family’s welfare, and that there are certainly thugs out there that pose a very real criminal threat, one you should be prepared to confront. But is this a godly response to the authorities, no matter how unjust their behavior towards us? Exactly how far can a Christian go in resisting the authorities?
More important, maybe: how wise is it to resist? There’s a good case to be made that the Davidians were within their rights to resist the initial arrest, especially if their claim is true that the authorities fired first; Texas law explicitly states that it is legal to resist arrest for the sake of self-protection, if excessive force is being employed. But … so what? They resisted, and even prevailed; the BATF called off the assault. The Davidians had won—but the cost was four government agents dead, many more wounded, and a government agency determined to take revenge for its public humiliation. The ensuing 51-day siege, ending in the conflagration that killed all but a few of the eighty people at Mt. Carmel, should have come as no surprise to anyone except those who think of justice as an abstract and perfect thing, not susceptible to human passion and wickedness.
I think that the rules exist for the sake of the troublemakers—that is, not only to protect those who push the envelope, but also to protect us from the temptation to treat them unjustly in cases where we can get away with it. When the troublemaker is unpopular and unlikeable and ungodly and we are angry enough to want to exact a bit of God’s vengeance for Him, it is good to have rules that limit what we can do.
But I also think that we are to do whatever we can to live at peace with all men, to avoid becoming troublemakers ourselves. Did the attacking BATF agents present a real threat to the safety of the Davidians, a threat that could legally resisted according to Texas law? Probably. Were they right to resist? Probably not, at least as Christians. The suffering they would have gone through in the hands of the authorities woudn’t have exceeded what Jesus promised his followers.
I don’t mean to excuse the authorities for any of their actions at Waco, which were shameful from beginning to end. And I think those of us on society’s fringes would be well advised to study those actions carefully, since they tell us important things about what the government is willing to do when dealing with the fringe element—and what the American public will accept, endorse, even encourage.