Rastafarianism: A Critique

Non-traditional religious movements often grow and survive by maintaining an inherent flexibility and an ability to change with the times and with the needs of potential converts. Christianity's stake upon the historical event of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ -- an event that is by nature open to rational investigation and therefore subject, theoretically speaking, to disproof -- is a bold statement of a faith that simply cannot or will not change with the wind.

But Rastafarianism, like many new faiths, does not stake itself upon claims that are open to immediate or rational disproof. It is a fluid movement by its very nature: Rastafarianism "is not a church movement with hierarchical structures, highly developed institutions, and systematic theology." It has neither a priesthood nor a clergy. [1] It has "no agreed system of beliefs, no agreed credo equal to the Nicene Creed," and no social pressure to commit to what beliefs it has, for "attendance and participation in worship and ritual are not obligatory." [2] Though the Rastafarian movement is small in the grand view of religious faiths [3], it is growing steadily and, as we will see, suits well the relativistic climate of our age.

As always, Christians must be prepared to understand and confront alternate religious movements which offer pale substitutes for the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. But to understand Rastafarianism fully is no easy task, for it is a faith of composite plasticity, and "(b)eliefs and rituals may change from one group to the next." [4] It is indeed possible to identify a core of beliefs commonly, but not necessarily, held by Rastafarian believers. First, however, it may be helpful to understand the roots from which this movement has sprung.

  • [1] Peter B. Clarke, Black Paradise: The Rastafarian Movement (San Bernadino: Borgo Press), 1994, 49.
  • [2] Clarke, 63.
  • [3] As of June 1997, there were over 1 million Rastafarians worldwide. A large number of these reside in Jamaica, the home base of the movement, but the movement's numbers are growing in the Western nations, and today it is not uncommon to see them even in suburban centers. Nathaniel Murrell, "Introduction: The Rastafarians," in Nathaniel S. Murrell, William D. Spencer, and Adrian A. MacFarlane, eds., Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 1998.
  • [4] Leonard I. Barrett, The Rastafarians (Boston: Beacon Press), 1997., 104

    Rastafarianism as Social Protest

    Researchers who have conducted a social analysis of the Rastafarian faith unanimously agree that Rastafarianism, as a movement, is a reaction to historic injustices, perceived or otherwise. There is certainly true injustice in Jamaica, the geographical center of Rastafarianism: As is often the case in developing nations, five percent of the population (mostly white) holds on to 90% of the wealth, while the rest of the population is marginalized in extreme poverty. Socially, many regard Jamaica as still possessing, against the will of the majority of the population, a "neocolonial" status in which the country has been given the responsibility, but not the means, to be independent. [5]

    The historical roots of this social injustice are correctly perceived to have begun in colonial slavery, but additionally, are perceived by some to be continuing today through miseducation and brainwashing by the neocolonial, mostly white establishment (referred to figuratively as "Babylon" for reasons we will discover shortly) [6] which allegedly seeks to impose their values and will upon the subjugated majority.

    Rastafarianism enters this picture as a movement that represents "a conscious effort by the African soul to free itself from the alienating fetters of colonialism and its contemporary legacies." [7] Rejecting the Christian church as a tool of the establishment which merely promises "pie in the sky when they die" [8] to those it subjugates while robbing them of what is rightly theirs on earth, Rastafarianism moves to affirm the vitality and dignity of the black man and provide a different religious framework which suits this effort. The Rastafarian "looks on his blackness and sees that it is good and struggles to preserve it." [9]

    The movement is framed as the preserver of a declining heritage that is slowly and systematically being destroyed by the oppressive establishment, and therein lies its key to survival: No religious movement could thrive without some problem or enemy it purports to solve or defeat, and for the Rastafarian, the enemy is Babylon -- the culture which would rob them of their dignity and their heritage. [10]

  • [5] Tracy Nicholas, Rastafari: A Way of Life (New York: Anchor Books), 1979, 18. Adding fuel to the fire, some popular opinion in Jamaica supposes that organizations like the IMF, as well as corporations investing in Jamaica, are actually robbing the country of wealth; see Ennis B. Edmonds, "Dread 'I' in-a-Babylon: Ideological Resistance and Cultrual Revitalization," in Murrell, et al., 26.
  • [6] Edmonds, "Dread," 27
  • [7] Ibid., 23.
  • [8] Ibid., 27.
  • [9] Murrell, "Introduction," 2.
  • [10] Rastafarianism is related to a much larger movement, referred to as Afrocentrism, which believes that African peoples have been broadly subjugated and robbed of their rightful heritage, and that African culture was both superior to and provided the foundation for Western/European culture. Claims made by this movement tend to be founded upon questionable scholarship; for a general response to this movement, see Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa : How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History (HarperCollins), 1997.

    Core Rastafarian Beliefs

    Again, being a movement of composite plasticity, Rastafarianism is difficult to pin down in terms of a formulaic credo. Rastafarians do share a common terminology, and a common commitment to the idea that Rastafarianism is the climax of God's revelation [11], but beyond this there lies a variation upon key themes which form the basis of the movement.

  • [11] Barrett, 112.

    The New Lion of Judah: The Role of Haile Selassie

    In the early 20th century, native Jamacian Marcus Garvey was a leader in a "back to Africa" movement among those of African descent living in the Western hemisphere. Garvey himself had no particular allegiance to the Rastafarian movement, but he unwittingly earned the status of the movement's "John the Baptist" thanks to a prophecy allegedly made by him in 1916, when he said, "Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King, he shall be the Redeemer." [12] For the Rastafarian, this prophecy came to pass with the ascension of Haile Selassie to the throne of Ethiopia in 1930. [13]

    Encouraged by Selassie's adoption of the divine titles King of Kings and Lion of the Tribe of Judah, members of what would become the Rastafarian movement combined Garvey's supposed prophecy was with certain Biblical passages (Rev, 5:2-5, 19; Dan. 7:3; Ps. 68:31) and regarded this as evidence that Selassie was Almighty God on earth, "the black messiah foretold in the Scriptures, who would lead the black race out of its captivity in Babylon (white-dominated society) and back to the African continent, the land without evil." [14]

    As history continued, Selassie (who happened to be a devout Christian!) continued to fulfill Rastafarian prophetic expectations. The Emperor was temporarily deposed in 1936 by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia; his return to power in 1941 was seen as a fulfillment of Rev. 19:11-19 [15]. In August 1966, when Selassie visited Jamaica on a political mission, 100,000 showed up at the Kingston airport and many expected that the parousia (in the form, perhaps, of repatriation to Africa) was at hand. [16]

    Selassie's own take on this matter was rather curious. It is noted that while he did not publicly acknowledge what the Rastafarians said about him, he also did not deny what they said, and that he made no such affirming effort did not discourage Rastafarians; rather, it strengthened their belief in him under the rubric that "he who exalts himself will be humbled" [17] -- he would not truly be divine if he were aware of it! Chisholm, however, reports that Selassie, upon hearing of Rastafarian reaction to him, was heartbroken and sent a representative, Abuna Yesehaq, to Jamaica in January 1970 to found the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and teach the Ratstafarians of the true God. [18]

    Selassie was toppled in a military coup in September 1974, and died under house arrest in August 1975. While one might suppose that this would have put an end to Rastafarian claims of Selassie's deity, in some cases it actually strengthened it.

    At first, some Rastafarians refused to believe that he had died and proposed that reports of his death were part of a conspiracy or a lie of the press [19]. Others came to terms with the demise and death of Selassie by seeing it as part of a divine plan in which he has simply "disappeared" [20] and "moved away from the temporal scene in order to carry out his work as God and King in the spiritual realm." [21] The physical death of Selassie did not cause a reversal for these Rastafarians; rather, they "'knew' their God was alive for they continued to experience his vital, living presence." [22]

    On the other hand, Johnson-Hill reports that "an increasing number deny (Selassie's) divinity" and regard him only as God's representative, finding the importance not in the man, but in the throne he occupied. [23]

  • [12] See Edmonds, "Dread," 43, and Barrett, 67. There is no record of such a statement, however, in any of Garvey's recorded works or speeches.
  • [13] Clarke, 45. It is from Selassie that the name Rastafari is derived: Ras was the title of Ethopian royalty, and Tafari was the family name of Haile Selassie; Selassie's full name before ascension was Ras Tafari Mankonnen. The name "Haile Selassie" is itself a title that means "Power of the Holy Trinity."
  • [14] Clarke, 47. The early Rastafarians were apparently unaware that the title "King of Kings" was used by previous Ethiopian emperors, not to declare their own divinity, but to emphasize the Christian nature of their empire. Other titles taken by Selassie, regarded as significant by the early Rastafarians, were likewise in no way unique to Selassie. See Clinton Chisholm, "The Rasta-Selassie-Ethiopia Connections," in Murrell, et al., 171-2.
  • [16] Barrett, 158.
  • [17] Barrett, 108.
  • [18] Chisholm, "Rasta."
  • [19] Clarke, 51, and Barrett, 250.
  • [20] John Moodie, Hath the Lion Prevailed? n.p., 1992., 33.
  • [21] Barrett, 253. [22] Clarke, 53. [23] Jack A. Johnson-Hill, I-Sight: The World of Rastafari (Metuchen NJ: Scarecrow Press), 1975, 5.

    Slavery and Salvation: New World Africans as "Israel"

    A second common core belief in Rastafarianism centers upon the close identification of African peoples with the nation of Israel. As Clarke puts it: "The Rastafarians 'know' that an identity exists between themselves and the ancient Israelites. Further they 'know' and confirm what they 'know' by reference to the Bible (Lamentations 4:8, 5:10; Joel 2:8; Psalm 119:83, and elsewhere) that the chosen people were black, and conclude from this that black people today are the descendants of God's elect." [24] A historical parallel is found in the black experience of slavery, which is supposed to correspond to the scattering and dispersal of the Jews for their sins; hence, the black race, like the Jews, was under the thumb of "Babylon" because of their iniquity, and the humiliation suffered because of slavery is understood to be part of a divine plan of redemption, and some even go as far as seeing Rastafarians as the linear reincarnation of the Israelites who were in captivity.

    All Rastafarians agree that there will be some form of repatriation for them -- it is part of their eschatology -- but exactly what form this repatriation will take is unknown. Early Rastafarians, following Garvey, maintained that the repatriation would be literal and physical, to Africa in general or Ethiopia in particular. [25] Younger and newer Rastafarians, however, understand the "return" in symbolic terms, with reference to a "mental decolonization" [26] -- a cultural and symbolic return to values they hold dear as Africans, over and against the values held by Babylon, coupled with an interest in the liberation of Jamaica [27]. A composite view sees the Rastafarian believer as already repatriated spiritually, but not yet repatriated physically, for it is "because of the slavemasters' trickery [that] have been unable to return." [28]

    It is fair to make the point, however, that in spite of Rastafarianism's "Afrocentric" perspective, Rastafarianism should not be understood as a "racist" religion. The group technically welcomes members from all races, and a small number of Rastafarians are not black; the theme of the movement among mature members is: check the spirit, not the skin color. Even among less mature members, however, though the white race might be regarded as inferior, not all whites are at once thought of as evil; rather, they are accepted on merit until otherwise proven guilty of racism. [29]

  • [24] Clarke, 17.
  • [25] Barrett, 1-2. So strong was this belief that the giving of land grants in 1955 to immigrants to Africa was seen as an eschatological fulfillment, and caused the doubling of Rastafarian membership; ibid., 90.
  • [26] Clarke, 51.
  • [27] Barrett, 117
  • [28] Barrett, 111.
  • [29] Barrett, 115

    Inside Knowledge and Ganja (Marijuana): Rastafarianism's "Burning in the Bosom"

    Although sometimes appealing to the Bible, the primary source of revelation, for the Rastafarian, is not an external source but an internal witness. Because it is believed that "God and/or the divine is present in the innermost reaches of every man," [30] "(i)t is personal experience, as much as anything else, which determines the validity or otherwise of a statement, truth, or belief." [31] Or as one leading Rastafarian teacher puts it: "The only way to discover the divine is to search within." [32] Understandings of truth are achieved -- individually or by the group -- during what is called "reasoning" sessions or "groundings," the functional equivalent of a religious service.

    As an aid to this internal witness, Rastafarians engage in the use of ganja -- a particularly strong type of marijuana with four times the punch of the ordinary street drug. [33] Ganja is used much as LSD was during the 1960s cultural revolution and as peyote is used by certain Native American faiths: Passed among members in pipes or used by individuals in the form of "spliffs" (extra-large cigarettes), it is a "source of revelation, inspiration, nutrition, relaxation, entertainment, and healing," [34] a key to a new understanding of the self, the creation, and Creator. (Using ganja as an end unto itself, however, is sometimes frowned upon.)

    Rastafarian everyday language reflects this cosmic perception of oneness with the Creator. Of particular note is what may seem an excessive use of the personal pronoun I, which actually exhibits a deep philosophical significance. Rather that saying "we," a Rastafarian may say, "I-n-I" -- symbolizing "a rejection of subservience in Babylonian culture and an affirmation of self as an active agent in the creation of one's own reality and identity." [35] Rather than say "I went home," the Rastafarian may say "I and I went home" in order "to include the presence and divinity of the Almighty with himself every time he speaks." The two "I"s constitute the individual and the Creator who resides within. [36] Recognizing one's oneness with the divine is what constitutes Rastafarian soteriology: "(P)roblems in human conduct result from inadequacies in consciousness, not from an ontological dichotomy between creature and creator." [37]

  • [30] Clarke, 46.
  • [31] Clarke, 49-50.
  • [32] Clarke, 66. Although it is added, after the manner of Orwell's Animal Farm and with reference to Haile Selassie, that "the divine is more recognizable in some individuals than in others" !
  • [33] Barrett, 128. It is not known how marijuana came to be the drug of choice for Rastafarianism, but it is noted that marijuana once functioned as a coping mechanism in Jamaica as alcohol often functions here in the United States. Nicholas, 52, adds, though, that unlike in the States, marijuana does not function as a "gateway" drug and that "harder" drugs are seldom found in Jamaica.
  • [34] Nicholas, 50. Ganja may also be used as a folk medicine and applied topically, or ingested as a type of tea.
  • [35] Edmonds, "Dread," 33. Similarly, MacFarlane, who calls this "a linguistic device that provides a new sense of self-liberation for a people of the African diaspora." Adrian MacFarlane, "The Epistemological Significance of 'I-an-I' as a Response to Quashie and Anancyism in Jamaican Culture," in Murrell, et al., 107.
  • [36] This special use of the individual pronoun in even extended into seemingly irrelevant situations: Amen may be said as I-men; desire as I-sire, total as I-tal. In addition, words may be reconstructed to accentuate a positive, forward-leaning view; rather than say, "I will be back" a Rastafarian will perhaps say, "I and I will be forward"; rather than say "understood," they may say "overstood." Clarke, 92; Nicholas, 38-9.
  • [37] Johnson-Hill, 331.

    The Natural Men: The Rastafarian and His Environment

    As a corollary of their identity with the Hebrews, Rastafarians follow the Old Testament laws as they understand them. Based on their understanding of the dietary laws, Rastafarians prefer to live off the land and eat natural foods. Rastafarian diet excludes pork or any dead flesh (making them for all intents and purposes vegetarians), alcohol, tobacco, and food prepared by non-Rastafarians. Some will also eat with their hands rather than use silverware or plates, or drink only rainwater. [38]

    A particular source of consternation for Westerners has been the fearsome appearance Rastafarians seem to assume because of the way they dress and because of the common use of the "dreadlock" hairstyle. In terms of dress, Rastafarians may wear torn or tattered clothes as a symbol of their rejection of "Babylonian" values stressing the importance of appearance [39]. The growing of dreadlocks (which is done simply by letting the naturally tightly-curled hair of Africans grow without being combed or brushed, and washed with no more than water [40]) was perhaps inspired by pictures of native Africans seen wearing similar styles, but is justified on the basis of Num . 6:5-6 (as is the growing of beards on the basis of Lev. 21:5).

    Functionally the dreadlocks serve multiple purposes. Their fearful appearance causes "dread" among the residents of Babylon, imitates the mane of the lion (in line with Selassie's title as "Lion of the Tribe of Judah" and serve as a "psychic antenna" which collects and distributes mental energy: "the shaking of locks is thought to unleash spiritual energy that will eventually bring about the destruction of Babylon." [41]

    Because of their sense of oneness with the creation, the Rastafarians share the Bible's general moral sense. "The basic quest of Rasta is the maintenance, among all people, of divine principles of life. All of these principles -- honesty, loyalty, fear and love of God, self-attainment -- are laid down in the Bible and are not meant to be added to, diminished, or otherwise altered by men. Man should only manifest." [42]

  • [38] Nicholas, 58.
  • [39] MacFarlane, "I-an-I," in Murrell, et al., 110.
  • [40] Nicholas, 55.
  • [41] Edmonds, "Dread," 31-2
  • [42] Nicholas, 43

    Rastafarians and the Bible

    We have noted that the Bible is sometimes used as a secondary authority among Rastafarians, but this does not mean that the Bible is recognized as being authoritative as it is. Early Rastafarian leader Leonard Howell produced a Rasta Bible, saying that the original text "had been distorted by white people who had turned God and his prophets into white men." According to the Rastafarians, the ancient Israelites were black men (as was Jesus), and the Bible is useful only "when correctly understood and interpreted." It was originally written in Amharic (a native African language) and "cannot be taken literally," for whites "mistranslated some sections and in order to conceal from black people their real history and identity purposely omitted others." [43]

    The key to detecting these mistranslations is, of course, the internal witness. [44] (One might therefore wonder why the Bible is even used in the first place; Barrett, 127, supposes that it is because Haile Selassie made use of it.)

    Some unique Rastafarian interpretations of the Bible worth noting:

    • Early leader Leonard Howell claimed that blacks were cursed via Noah and Ham, and their skin was turned white. The curse of Miriam (Num. 12) is whiteness [43]
    • A key work used by Rastafarians is the Kebra Negast, a 13th-14th century text alleging a visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon which involved a sexual escapade that produced a son. [44]
    • The black person is stone of Daniel 2:31-42; the other symbols are equated as follows: gold = Britain, silver = France; brass = Belgium; clay/iron = Germany [45]
  • [43] Murrell and Williams, "Hermeneutics," 331-2
  • [44] Chisholm, "Rasta," in Murrell, et al., 168-9
  • [45] Barrett, 119

    Conclusion and Summary: Witnessing to Rastafarians

    "Much of what Rastafarians believe may strike some as pure myth or highly subjective nonsense which will easily be swept away when members emerge from the ghetto and confront the realities of everyday life." The Rastafarians "fully expect white society in particular to dismiss out of hand what they themselves 'know' to be the truth, which rather than disconfirming only serves to strengthen the conviction they have that they are right." [46] In Jamaica, 90% of Rastafarian converts from Christian church backgrounds [47] Great difficulty attends any discussion with a Rastafarian, for "movements of this type are not interested in empirical truths, but rather in the certitude of the doctrine...if it fulfills and emotional need it can succeed" [48] and it "claims for itself an immunity from logic not granted to any other kind of knowledge system." [49] Moreover, difference of opinion in Rastafarianism is not seen as evidence of disunity, but as a source of deeper understanding [50].

    One Rastafarian, in response to a query asking whether their God was a psychological prop, responded: "Those who don't know speculate, but I know, and what I know cannot be taken away by cunning arguments!" [51] The statement encapsulates well how a Rastafarian might respond to the Gospel message. The presenter may at best be presenting ideas worthy of synthesis into a programme that will not be abandoned; at worst, he may be accused of trickery and deception, even when their rational arguments cannot be refuted. Rastafarianism is a web whose strands are not easily broken or escaped.

  • [46] Clarke, 77.
  • [47] Barrett, 3
  • [48] Barrett, 84
  • [49] Barrett, 103
  • [50] Johnson-Hill, 24
  • [51] MacFarlane, "I-an-I," in Murrell, et al., 117