A few days ago I finished reading Ashes of Waco by Dick Reavis. If you are interested in what happened to the Branch Davidians, the book is probably all you need to read on the topic. But I would also recommend watching the documentary Waco: Rules of Engagement, which does things the book can’t do in helping you understand exactly how events unfolded.
Although I recommend both the book and the documentary, I don’t think it is important that anyone study this particular event, as long as they already think that the government is quite capable of abusing its power when dealing with fringe elements. Anyone who doesn’t know this should be advised to educate themselves about it, and the case of the Branch Davidians is a good place to start.
One thing I appreciated about Reavis’s book is that Reavis took the time to study the history and the doctrine of the Branch Davidians (no mean feat for an unbeliever), and as a result he is able to portray their beliefs and practices accurately. Given what they believed, they behaved in a calm and rational manner. And though most of us may not share those beliefs, they were entitled to hold them.
One thing I learned from Reavis’s book is that we are naive to think that such devotion to a cause or a man must be the result of illegitimate psychological conditioning, love-bombing or protein deprivation or mind control. David Koresh was not an especially charismatic man, not physically attractive, not highly intelligent, not manipulative, not coercive. In fact, he introduced a number of practices (such as meat eating among these strictly vegetarian Adventists) that offended his flock, and drove some of them off.
The only power that David Koresh exercised was the power of a trusted teacher. People came to him from around the world because he explained parts of the Bible to them which they had never previously understood. People were free to come or go; the only thing that held them their was their belief that Koresh had special knowledge that he was willing to share with them. The Branch Davidians were not so much devoted to Koresh personally as they were to the interpretation of the Bible that he preached. And they were willing to die for that interpretation.
That’s a sobering thought in a day when people are forming communities with the idea of joining forces to advance a particular understanding of the Bible. I don’t think these communities embrace doctrines nearly as aberrant as that of the Branch Davidians, but I do see a similar devotion to the teachers who are promoting these new and bracing doctrines, and a similar sense of specialness among the adherents. And I wonder what controls are in place to keep these teachers from leading their disciples down paths that deviate ever further from the normal Christian life.