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Apocalypse Then

There was no sense of this being a holy place, only a terribly tragic place, but nonetheless an appropriate place to do penance, a fitting place to pray on Ash Wednesday.

The Mount Carmel Center engulfed in flames on April 19, 1993. (Wikipedia)

On the morning of Ash Wednesday, I walked out of the hotel where I was staying and strolled across a sprawling green playing field (Obviously I wasn’t in Minnesota) to a lovely little Franciscan church built in the 1920’s, which was a replica of a Spanish baroque mission church that was built in the 17th century. The Mass was in Spanish, and I was the only non-Hispanic person present. No matter. I was among my own people: Catholics. The priest, who barely spoke English, greeted me warmly, as did everyone else at the Sign of Peace. It was a wonderful way to begin Lent. One of the memorable images I took away was the long line of young men, most likely a road crew, decked out in bright orange vests, lined up to receive their ashes.

Where was I? In Texas. The night before I celebrated Fat Tuesday in the most literal manner with an authentic chicken-fried steak, my first ever. After working my way through that, I knew that fasting the next day was going to be a cinch. And it was. But I still had some penance to do; namely, a four-hour drive to my next speaking gig, as the cities in Texas are notoriously far apart. Did I mention what city I was in?

Waco.

For anyone over 30, the name is still associated with only one thing: the site of one of the most horrific and controversial calamities in American history. In 1993, there was a standoff between a small religious sect called the Branch Davidians and federal government agents. It ended in the violent deaths of over 80 people. It ended in ashes.

David Koresh was the sort of guy who gives cults a bad name. He called himself the Sinful Savior, charismatically preaching from his well-memorized Bible, jamming on his electric guitar, smashing the puritanical prohibitions against smoking and drinking, and openly violating the somewhat less narrow proscriptions against multiple marriages and sex with underage girls. He was also ready to kill, arming his group with a stockpile of weaponry needed for the Battle of Armageddon. He exercised total control over his followers who were willing to die with him and for him. Which is exactly what happened. “Waco” came to stand for “We Ain’t Coming Out!”

But as a professor from Baylor University pointed out to me, many of Koresh’s followers were highly educated; PhD’s and MBA’s from Princeton, Yale and Oxford, “left over from their science and technical expertise that was deadening to the soul.” They were looking for a religious solution, and they found one that they thought was … easy: prepare for the impending end of the world.

The Branch Davidians are a microcosm of American Protestant devolution. They were a sect that had broken away from another sect that had broken away from the Seventh Day Adventists that had broken away from a sect known as the Millerites, which was a sub-sect of Baptists, who can trace their breakages to the non-conformists who broke from the Church of England, which had broken from the Catholic Church. 500 years of broken branches.

The one thread of continuity in these sects was an obsession with the Book of Revelation and determining the date of the earth’s last day. Koresh claimed to have cracked the Code of the Seven Seals. But he met with his own apocalyptic conflagration before he could reveal the code to the rest of us. People shake their heads at such stuff, yet there is a much more widespread group of souls who eschew religion but are equally obsessed with the end of the world. They are environmentalists, and the world is all they have. Both of these extreme positions lack a certain balance, a balance offered by the Catholic Church.

G.K. Chesterton says that the Creed is like a key. And what is the lock? The whole problem of existence itself. What does it mean? Why are we here? Because the problem is complex, there are no simple solutions. Both a lock and the key that fits it are complicated. And only one key works. Some people prefer the crowbar to the key, but that involves violence, and merely destroying the thing you’re trying to discover.

For some, the disaster at Waco was about the danger of cults, epitomizing the delusion which is religion. For others, it was all about the danger of government overreach and violation not only of freedom of religion, but of private property. It gave rise to a militia movement, and “Waco” was the byword.

But as the people of Waco are anxious to point out: technically the thing didn’t happen in Waco. The Branch Davidian compound was located in the unincorporated community of Axtell, about 15 miles outside of Waco. So as soon as I got on the road, I made a detour to Axtell to visit what is now called New Mount Carmel.

Very little remains there except, surprisingly, a few Branch Davidians, who live in four or five houses on the edge of the property. A small, simple chapel has been built on the site of the former compound. Several memorials have been erected around the property, with inscriptions of the names of everyone who died, including the four Federal ATF agents killed in the initial shoot-out. The remnant Davidians have disassociated themselves from Koresh, so I suppose they represent a new branch, broken off the former one. There is a photo of Koresh in the chapel along with a warning from the prophet Ezekiel about the bad end that comes to those who make themselves God.

I walked around the grounds. It was eerie. I meditated and prayed under a gray sky. Silence but for wind sweeping across the open landscape, in stark contrast to the sounds of 27 years ago this spring: gunfire, screaming, megaphones, tanks, explosions, and the sickening sound of the compound engulfed in flames and crumbling to the ground, with over 70 people inside, including 20 children.

There was no sense of this being a holy place, only a terribly tragic place, but nonetheless an appropriate place to do penance, a fitting place to pray on Ash Wednesday. I was the only one there. Just me and the ashes on my forehead.


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About Dale Ahlquist 41 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

6 Comments

  1. “For others, it was all about the danger of government overreach and violation not only of freedom of religion, but of private property.”

    Almost 30 years later, this issue still hasn’t been resolved.

  2. Since the advent of the latest manifestation of the “new things” of modernism, socialism, and the New Age in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, America especially has been a hothouse for the growth of messianic and utopian movements, most of them using the name of Christianity to mask the fact Christianity is the main target. Socialism, for example, was originally touted as “the Democratic Religion” with various forms known as “the New Christianity” (de Saint-Simon) and “Neo-Catholicism” (de Lamennais), and was originally intended to supersede not capitalism, but Catholicism. This was why Pope Gregory XVI condemned what soon became known as socialism, modernism, and New Age thought as “rerum novarum” in 1832 and 1834, reiterated by Leo XIII in 1891.

    Interestingly, David Koresh seems to have been influenced by the “American Messiah” Cyrus Reed Teed, who while unconscious from the effects of electric shock claimed to have been visited by a spirit who declared him the New Messiah sent to bring the world into the Age of Aquarius which began with Teed’s birth in 1839. Teed took the name “Koresh” and founded a movement. One of its tenets was we really live on the inside of a hollow earth; that we live on the outside is an illusion of the Devil.

    Many of the beliefs of Teed and other Messiahs were integrated into mainstream Christianity, largely through the efforts of Albert Brisbane and Henry George, with the result that even today many otherwise orthodox Christians take socialist and modernist beliefs for granted, particularly as promulgated by the Fabian Society and its influence. People like G.K. Chesterton and Fulton Sheen spent many years attempting to counter the new things.

  3. “Apocalypse Then”, how about now? I have seen scientific evidence that APOCALYPSE soon has advanced the cause. Those naysayers who are very vocal challenge the experts. The current world population has been estimated at over 8 billion. A catholic priest said as an uneducated postulation that the planet can absorb a 20 billion consumers in a finite world. Others will retort the world goes through volatile APOCALYPSE every 10,000 years. Only problem is that the pristine condition is where was few if any occupants polluting this early globe. APOCALYPSE NOW where the planet reaches a tipping point soon if we continue to ignore reality. We may pray, but action is also needed. Our president calls global warming a “hoax” a word he uses frequently. Some leadership.

  4. morganB ,
    Please look at current demographic charts & projections. Global fertility rates have plummeted in all but a few regions. Most of the world needs to be prepared for population implosions, not explosions.
    It really isn’t 1970 anymore.
    🙂

  5. The Massacre at Mount Carmel grieves me. The Branch Davidians were Seventh Day Adventists attempting to recreate an Acts 2 community. They owned a legal gun store and all their firearms were legally recorded.
    Infrared film shows that when the children tried to run out of the burning building_ live fire from the FBI shooters sent them running back into the burning building to their horrible and painful martyrdom. Accusing David Koresh of being a “child molester” forced him to prove his innocence. Burning him alive along with the remaining members of the church group was trial, judgement and execution by the FBI and ATF… not by a court of law. Also please note that by calling them a cult is as demonizing as is calling their ranch community a “compound”.
    This was a government assault on bible believing Christians. To call it otherwise is to ignore the persecution of the fascist left. The Clintons were responsible for this atrocity. The same FBI and ATF agents that burned Mount Carmel also shot and killed the 10 year old Weaver boy and his dog and then killed his mother by shooting her in the door of her cabin home while she was holding her baby in her arms.
    Their crime was labeled as being white separatists. The Weaver Family had moved from the crime ridden Quad Cities to a remote mountaintop in Idaho known as Ruby Ridge. Randy Weaver was an Army veteran. The ATF entrapped the impoverished man with a firearms violation when he refused to infiltrate and inform on a possible white supremist group.
    If there is repentance to be made and rest assured there is- it is for the good men who did nothing in the face of evil. Where was and is the outrage? The only example that the government gave as outrage was McVey at Oklahoma thereby implying that anyone who opposed the government was an “imbalanced skinhead fascist” murderer and US military veteran .
    It was a time when the Clintons claimed that the biggest threat to national security was Bible believing veterans who were for the 2nd Amendment and opposed to abortion. Does that label apply to anyone reading this comment? Where is government and personal accountability. All one has to do is rail red button labels and accusations and society sits back and cries “they had it coming”.
    AND Here is the warning- who is next? Doesn’t 1938 Germany ring any bells here.
    God have mercy on us all.

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