Words don’t work very well right now. The recent tragic events at Mount Carmel have stunned and saddened us all. Tears of deep sorrow are shed, and hearts ache to the core. May peace come soon to the families and friends of those on both sides of the barbed-wire fence.

Vernon Howell (a.k.a. David Koresh) and his followers asked us to believe that he was a prophet. Most of us developed opinions early on about his self-proclaimed divine status. But an important issue has been raised, and it invites exploration. Many voices and diverse viewpoints beg our allegiance. We are constantly sorting, consciously and subconsciously, the claims of those we hear most often.

Unfortunately, in a hierarchically divided and fragmented world, life-guiding beliefs are frequently swayed by clever appeals, false promises and externally evoked guilt, fear and greed. In such an environment, our ability to discern the authentic from the artificial becomes invaluable.

Certain guidelines for discerning false from true leaders were given 2,000 years ago by a genuine mystic, prophet and spiritual leader. Perhaps they bear repeating (in paraphrased form).

  • Beware of leaders who are arrogant and self-righteous. Closing their hearts and minds, they claim perfect understanding and attempt to invalidate the beliefs of others, frequently ridiculing those who disagree with themselves.
  • Beware of leaders who replace the spiritual laws of God with the dogma and tradition of humans. You will know them because they memorize and quote liberally the letter of the law but behave as if they don’t understand the spirit behind it.
  • Beware of leaders who play status and power games. You will know them because they exalt themselves and attach great social importance to titles, clothing, cars, houses and other possessions. Proud and vain, they exhibit excessive concern for appearance—their lifestyles reveal where their treasures are, and which god has their devotion.
  • Beware of leaders who advocate using violent means to achieve peaceful ends. You will know them because they prepare themselves emotionally, intellectually and physically to attack and maim others in defense of their idols.

Spiritual authority must not be confused with religious authority, just as spirituality must not be confused with religiosity. Spirituality is pervasive — every thought and act is a spiritual decision and has spiritual effects. In contrast, religion is humanity’s attempt to make sense of things spiritual. Its primary function is to organize and perpetuate truth stories which guide us toward spiritual wholeness. Religion points us to a path. Spirituality is the path.

False and violent “prophets” may make headlines. Yet false leaders are all around us, not only in cults or in the media, but in every hamlet on the planet. Wisdom suggests we make ourselves aware of them to minimize their negative impact. Deluded but usually sincere and pain-ridden souls, these people are not to be feared or persecuted. Recognizing their messages as false is sufficient—doing so strips them of authority and renders them powerless.

God willing, if we examine the lives of our leaders, and our own lives as well, under the bright, clear light of true spirituality, there will never be another Mount Carmel.

Skip Londos is a Waco investment counselor.

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.