Complicated Narratives

“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it,” Chesterton quipped in his book, A Short History of England. “If a man has a right to vote, has he not a right to vote wrong? If a man has a right to choose his wife, has he not a right to choose wrong? I have a right to express the opinion which I am now setting down; but I should hesitate to make the controversial claim that this proves the opinion to be right.”

We like uncomplicated narratives: right and wrong, left and right, conservative and liberal, good and bad. If the narrative is linear, we can make sure that we are on the side of right. And in the United States, what is right to do is what you have a right to do.

In the six-part, limited series Waco (2018; streaming on Netflix), rights and right are often twined together in a way that echoes (or presaged) many of the conversations happening now. To have a right to marry young girls, as long as you have their parents’ permission, is not the same as being right to do so. To have a right to form a new religion from an old book is not the same as being right about that book. To have a right to bring the full force of the FBI against a building with women and children in it, because you think—maybe—that there are firearms violations and abuse happening is not the same as being right in doing it, or how it’s done.

When it comes to choosing sides, it is easiest and least conflictual if everyone on either side of an issue is in lock-step agreement. In Waco, neither those in Mt. Carmel nor those in the FBI tents are on the same page about the correct course of action. Gary Noesner (on whose book the series is partially based) sees resolution of a standoff in a fundamentally different way from Mitch Decker. And as the siege goes on, Steve Schneider—though on-board with the Branch Davidians in general—has trouble reconciling that with what David Koresh requires of him.

If we simply dismiss Koresh as an insane cult leader, it’s hard to understand how he could attract such fervent followers. Waco, and Taylor Kitsch as Koresh, show one possible version of his charisma and magnetism, as well as how, like a convincing fortune teller, he was able to predict events in such a way that people believed him when he told them they were being fulfilled. Whatever he thought about his relationship to Jesus, he seems clearly to have viewed himself as the Lamb of God of Revelation 5, opening the seven seals as part of the ending of this world. The fact that such an interpretation can only lead to bad places theologically and communally is something different, however, from the question about whether the FBI should have laid siege to their compound, and possibly caused the deaths of so many.

But if once you have put your full confidence in a man who claims revelations from God (and who knows the Scriptures well; at one point Steve says that Koresh had memorized the entire Bible), it has to be hard to break free of the hold that must exert on your conscience. And if you’re convinced of the truth of his words, you’re certainly going to be willing to put that faith up against death.

That’s where Gary Noesner was correct. Mitch Decker and Tony Prince (at least in the show) are viewing the Davidians as typical, anti-government criminals. Something that works against criminals with hostages isn’t going to work against true believers. But beyond the question of tactics, the series raises the question of force and whether might makes right. Mitch tells Gary that there are far more people than law enforcement, and so the only way to do their job is to make people believe that they are powerful. But Gary has seen enough stand-offs to conclude that the display of firepower often has an effect opposite to what is intended: it makes people more likely to fight, rather than less.

27 years on from Waco, the police have become more like the military in equipment and tactics. Recent protests have seen police acting in unreasonable ways toward both protesters and press. In this age of ubiquitous cell phones and social media, I can’t for the life of me understand engaging in what appears to be unprovoked violence. Even if the officer believes that there may be a threat, I would want to be one hundred percent sure that I had no other choice before acting. Not only are bad actors going to be publicized widely, unnecessary force is only going to make it more difficult for upright law enforcement.

Apart from questions about rights and right, the series leaves open the question of who fired the first shot in the initial altercation between the ATF and the Branch Davidians. But the clear implication is that the FBI’s deployment of CS gas, via Department of Defense tanks, caused the fire that kept people from being rescued. In the final minutes, Ron Engelman (played by Eric Lange), a Dallas talk radio show host, lists several occasions—with documentary footage—when the use of tear gas led to fire and death. It’s a damning indictment of such tactics in close quarters.

At one point, after the power is cut off (in the series; in real life, it apparently happened before the power was cut), David Koresh appears in a window with a guitar, using a generator to power the speakers. In the series, he sings “I Still Believe (Great Design).” (It’s unclear what he may have actually sung. Though most people probably know the song from the movie The Lost Boys, sung by Tim Capello, it’s actually by the criminally underrated and little-known band The Call, from their 1986 album Reconciled.) “I still believe/Through the shame/And through the grief/Through the heartache/Through the tears/Through the waiting/Through the years/For people like us/In places like this/We need all the hope/That we can get.” The lyrics are eerily appropriate for Koresh’s last stand.

In hindsight, the song just as easily have been the next song from Reconciled, “Blood Red (America).” “Did we ask for trouble when we asked for breath?/A silent witness put to the test/In a frozen moments an offering made/Foreign rumors live to this day, sing on yeah. Do, you feel protected inside the white walls?/A world neglected heads for a fall/A fate suspended each day is a gift/A world offended, God what is this?/He says, ‘We’ll walk in the front door/And proudly raise our heads’/I say, ‘Man you must be joking/Our hands are covered in blood red.’”

Or maybe “Tore the Old Place Down:” “A man cries out in anguish/A man cries out alone/He says what’s happened to my city?/What’s happened to my home? Each child stands uncovered/Naked before all/He says what have you to show me?/You did not hear me call/They tore the old place down/There’s nothing more, oh oh oh oh. They stood upon the balcony/They watched the city burn/Is there nothing to be gained from this?/Is there nothing to be learned?”

Most applicable of all might be The Call’s song “The Hand that Feeds You” from 1990’s Red Moon. And maybe that’s not only for the debacle at Waco; maybe it’s for Minneapolis, and the whole damned world. And yet we still turn a blind eye to the words, “There is none righteous, not even one.” In that sullen light, it would be easy to become entirely cynical and hopeless. But maybe for good reason: better a little less hope in ourselves, and an entire hope in the One who not only has a right to this creation as Lord, but is alone right in His words and justified in His judgments, who has made all things right in His own flesh in order to make the whole creation right. For people like us, in places like this, we need all the hope that we can get. “I’ll wait ’til the end of time/for You like everybody else.”