Mar 28, 2014

Secularization and the siege of the Branch Davidians

Twenty-one years ago, when federal agents with guns and tanks descended on Mount Carmel, the property of a small, Seventh-day Adventist splinter sect named the Branch Davidians, the leader of the group called the local sheriff's office. He was considered a prophet. Specifically, he thought of himself and was thought by the Branch Davidians as an apocalyptic prophet. They thought at the end of the world he would explain and expound the Bible prophecies of the end of the world.

With paramilitary forces surrounding them, it looked a lot like the end of the world at Mount Carmel.

The leader, 33-year-old David Koresh, tried to explain this to Deputy Larry Lynch in the McClellan County Texas Sheriff's Office. The phone call went like this:
Koresh: In the prophecies --
Lynch: All right.
Koresh: it says --
Lynch: Let me, can I interrupt you for a minute?
Koresh: Sure.
Lynch: All right, we can talk theology. But right now --
Koresh: No, this is life. This is life and death!
Lynch: Okay.
Koresh: Theology --
Lynch: That's what I'm talking about.
Koresh: is life and death. 
In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell explores why government agents couldn't understand the Branch Davidians. The 1993 siege ended in tragedy. It seems, from all the information available after 21 years, that it ended in a tragedy that could have been avoided. But it wasn't. And it wasn't, Gladwell argues pretty convincingly, because government agents on every level could not understand the religious motivations of the Branch Davidians for what they were: religious motivations.

That is to say -- though Gladwell doesn't use the word -- secularization.

Surveying the breadth of literature on what went so wrong that the siege ended in a fatal fire, killing 74 people, Gladwell writes:
As the conflict-studies scholar Jayne Docherty argues, the F.B.I.'s approach was doomed from the outset . . . The techniques that work on bank robbers don't work on committed believers. There was no pragmatism hidden below a layer of posturing, lies, and grandiosity. Docherty uses Max Weber's typology to describe the Davidians. They were 'value-rational' -- that is to say, their rationality was organized around values, not goals. A value-rational person would accept his fourteen-year-old daughter’s polygamous marriage, if he was convinced that it was in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Because the F.B.I. could not take the faith of the Branch Davidians seriously, it had no meaningful way to communicate with them:
F.B.I.: What I’m saying is that if you could make an agreement with your people that they’re walking out of there and you could --  
Koresh: No, no, no, no. Let's stop that now. 
Koresh: I am not going to tell them what to do. I never have and never will. I show them out of a book what God teaches. Then it's for them to decide. 
F.B.I.: David, these kids need their parents, and we want everybody to be safe. How about the women? Can—will you let them come out of there? . . . 
Koresh: Yeah, but the thing of it is that if they wanted to, they, they could. 
F.B.I.: Well, I, I think they feel like they can’t because you don’t want them to. 
To the F.B.I. agent, Mount Carmel was a hostage situation, and the purpose of the 'negotiation' was to get the man behind the barricade to release some of his captives. But Koresh saw his followers as his students. They were there of their own free will, to learn the prophecies of Revelation. How could he release people whom he was not holding in the first place?
One of the current explanations about secularization, held by Steve Bruce, among others, is that secularization does not mean that religious belief disappears. What happens with secularization, rather, is that the social power of religious belief declines. What happens with secularization is that increasing numbers of people don't take religious beliefs seriously. They don't understand religious motivations, and assume them to be false.

They fail to understand and fail to make themselves understood.

Like outside of Waco, Texas, in 1993, when FBI and ATF agents talked and argued for 51 days with a 33-year-old man who had renamed himself after a Persian king from circa 600 BC, and couldn't convince him that theology was unimportant, that understanding the Bible wasn't an apocalyptic affair.

The siege began on Feb. 28, 1993. It ended on April 19. Incidentally, I lived in Waco then, and saw the smoke billowing up from Mount Carmel before anybody knew the news.