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Fight Mythology With Words, Not Tanks

April 21, 1993|JEAN E. ROSENFELD | Jean E. Rosenfeld is a doctoral candidate at UCLA in the history of religion.

In April, 73 A.D., the Roman legions ended the two-year siege of Masada by storming the mountaintop fortress, only to find that the 1,000 men, women and children, led by the forceful Eleazar ben Jair, had committed mass suicide.

David Koresh chose to imitate his Zealot predecessor, driven by his conviction that the end of history was imminent and that God was about to establish his 1,000-year reign on Earth. Millenial behavior increased around the year 1000, and we are seeing more of it as the year 2000 approaches.

The behavior of the Jewish Zealots and the Waco Davidians is not logical, but mythological, and we cannot understand it by calling Koresh a "con man" and treating his beliefs as nonsense. Con men do not immolate themselves. His beliefs were familiar biblical prophecies; unlike us, he interpreted them as current history.

We cannot discourse with a David Koresh in the same manner as we would negotiate with a felon. Even though mythological behavior is non-rational, it is characterized by patterns, and one can predict outcomes. To minimize loss of life in the future, instead of treating cult behavior as criminal, we should treat cults as small theocracies that obey different laws and authority.

Once law enforcers act aggressively, a cult will interpret them as enemies of God. Accusing the rank and file of murder because they were present when the Feb. 28 battle took place validated Koresh and gave members no incentive to challenge his viewpoint.

A "prophet" seeks revelation from God by "reading" a divine message into the events around him. Instead of trying to wear down the compound inhabitants with sirens and searchlights, officials might have invited orthodox religious leaders to communicate to the cultists their interpretations of the "signs" of the Millenium. Cult members may decide to follow other prophets if they are persuaded that they are truly independent voices, not agents of the police.

Mythological thought exhibits a code that we may be able to decipher. It may even be possible to deceive the prophet into believing he has won the confrontation and God wants him to do the peaceful thing. The cult almost never initiates violence, but defends itself from threat to its continued existence.

There is a core of reality to millenial expectations. Koresh merely amplified the despair that we may sometimes feel in this era of limits on an overcrowded planet. Maybe we seek to root out cults because they voice fears we would rather deny.

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