A university professor’s promise to ninth-grade dropout Vernon Howell holds the latest best hope for ending a 47-day standoff near Waco between authorities and the Branch Davidians.
Dr. James Tabor is an associate professor in the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s department of religious studies.
Tabor and Dr. J. Phillip Arnold who runs a religious think-tank called Reunion Institute in Houston, caught Howell’s ear on April 1, when they appeared with host Ron Engelman on Dallas radio station KGBS.
Howell’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin, reportedly arranged for the cult leader to be listening that day.
Tabor and Arnold, who are friends, promised to sincerely study Howell’s claim that he can open the Seven Seals found in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, unloosing catastrophic events that would mark the end of mankind.
On Wednesday, Howell seemed ready to take them up on their offer.
DeGuerin, after a telephone conversation with Howell, said Howell is writing a manuscript on the Seven Seals. He will end the standoff once the manuscript is finished and in the hands of Tabor and Arnold, according to DeGuerin.
“As soon as I can see that people like Jim Tabor and Phil Arnold have a copy, I will come out and then you can do your thing with this beast,” DeGuerin quoted Howell as saying.
Tabor said he and Arnold aimed their radio broadcast at Howell.
“The idea was that we are religious scholars who might give him a sympathetic hearing instead of just saying he was a nut,” Tabor said in a telephone interview from Charlotte. “We didn’t just say, ‘This is crazy.’ That wasn’t part of our strategy. Because of today, I’d say to some degree it worked.”
After about 1½ days, Howell has almost finished writing on the First Seal, DeGuerin said.
Although Tabor and Arnold plan to keep their promise, they won’t be giving a thumbs up or thumbs down on Howell’s manuscript when it’s finished.
“I don’t think we would ever do that,” Tabor said. “That would make us some kind of judges. And I don’t think we’re being asked to do that. He just wants a more systematic hearing.
“So far, just snippets and rumors have come out about his message. Now he sees a chance for more. What does every prophet want? A hearing. We feel this is a positive step. Hopefully, he won’t feel so backed into a corner. We want them to come out.”
Tabor believes that if Howell is allowed to deliver his message coherently and accurately, he may leave Mount Carmel, the compound 10 miles east of Waco where he has been holed up with 95 followers since a Feb. 28 shootout that killed four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and at least two Branch Davidians.
Tabor said a transcription of the 58-minute sermon that Howell was allowed to deliver in early March over the radio was filled with errors. For example, Tabor said the phrase lion of the tribe of Judah came out as the lion in the trial of Judas.
Reports of Howell’s sermon were “garbled,” Tabor said.
“It may have been rambling. He was excited,” he said. “But it was definitely not incomprehensible. It was crystal clear. You could understand what he was trying to say.”
However unorthodox his religious views, Howell is not irrational, Tabor told the Charlotte Observer after appearing on the Engelman show.
“My view is he’s a highly articulate, very well-read, systematic thinker,” Tabor said. “His view may be as wrong as could be, but he’s systematically wrong. “Our whole idea is to appeal to his world view.”
Tabor doesn’t think there’s a danger that Howell will turn him into a Branch Davidian. His hope is that he’ll persuade Howell that there are alternative ways of looking at Scripture, particularly the verses found in Revelation.
“Our ultimate goal is to make him wonder,” Tabor said. “Given his psychology, that may not be possible. In his mind, he may think he can convince us. If he did, that certainly would make headlines, wouldn’t it?”