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?
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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