One of the challenges of each generation is to distinguish between religious language. That explains why “religion” gets a bad rap every now and then.

An assumption too many people make is that people who use religious language are actually deeply religious. Such persons may be deeply religious, or emotionally disturbed (our mental institutions abound with patients whose religious language and “ideation” sound religious, but who are profoundly out of touch with reality); or, as a third alternative, such persons may be first-class manipulators.

Vernon Howell — or David Koresh — appears to be the later. He exploits the weakness of followers and willing devotees. What appeared at first to be deeply held religious beliefs soon revealed a form of self-centeredness that borders on delusion (if he really did believe he was Jesus Christ).

Human beings who believe they are divine are either mentally unstable or charlatans. Since Howell has backed away from his claim to divinity, he appears to be a realist who is trying to find out how much his controlled followers will believe.

But, if former cult members are to be believed, he is more; In the name of religion, he has sexually used women and teenagers, and has used religion and religious language as his tool of manipulation.

If this “messiah” has a belief system, I suggest in trinitarian:

He believes in himself, and centers his energy on actions which will give him power (the need to be adored, to be in charge, to control and overpower others, to be the focus of attention, as opposed to calling attention to the power of God or the Christ he claims to receive orders from).

He believes in manipulation, the use and abuse of people for his own gratification, using religious language and religion as “cover” in which to hide his expendable, unlike the belief and actions of the Christ he claims to follow; sexual gratification and control of people is his idolatry.

He believes in violence as his major faith-system, having amassed weapons of destruction in the name of biblical redemption.

Perhaps Howell is not a manipulator, just a sincere believer who is seeking God’s will. He can readily confirm such posture by setting aside his weapons of destruction, and allowing his followers (without coercion to choose to leave the compound and no longer risk their lives for him. (Jesus would do so.)

The gathering of followers appears to be a sincere aggregation of easily-influenced believers. The surrender of their vows of marriage and parenting in order to obey Howell is characteristics of cult victims.

Such persons surrender their right to independent thinking first, then their right to think, then their selfhood, to a leader who commands unqualified allegiance. Such needs to surrender their rights to be thinking human being are often confused with religious “self-surrender.” Rarely is an action consistent with the biblical call to devotion.

To argue with Howell or his followers on the basis of religious language to communicate with them, is to miss the fact that for Howell religious language is a tool of power, and for his followers religious symbolism is only valued if interpreted by someone in whom they already believe.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and other law-enforcement officers have used religious language to communicate with Howell as if e were a man wanting to surrender power or capable of rational choices. His behavior indicates otherwise. The primary reason for government intervention should be if people’s lives are endangered, if people are being abused, or if an irrational leader has access to destructive forces.

The local community uses religious language in a variety of forms, but most professing believers in Waco reject religious rituals that manipulate, control, abuse, or destroy.

The consternation for a community that identifies itself as a religious community is that the people at the Mount Carmel complex are using some of the local believers — but in completely different ways.

The language is employed by a leader as a form of manipulation and control; the language is employed by Branch Davidians to perform actions diametrically opposed to the biblical principles followed by the many various belief systems of Waco.

Our role in this dilemma, then, is first to distinguish between mature religious belief and destructive behaviors disguised in religious language.

Ours is also the responsibility to help a community discern the difference between using religious language and being redemptive with our faith. Ours is also the task of behaving in such a manner that the highest biblical standards will be seen and felt where we live, so that with Micah, we “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly” with our God (Micah 6:8.)

The Rev. Dan Bagby is a member of the Board of Contributors, 32 Central Texans who write columns regularly for the Tribune-Herald. He is pastor of Seventh and James Baptist Church.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.