Rastafari

by Luke Wayne

Founder: While traditional Rastas would point to activist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) as a "forerunning prophet" and the coronation of King Haile Sellasie I of Ethiopia (1930) as the formal dawn of their movement, neither of these men were actually members, endorsers, nor directly involved in the founding of the Rastafari faith. Leonard Howell (1898-1981) is often credited as the actual founder of the Rastafari, though Howell seems to have been only the most prominent of a number of itinerant religious leaders in Jamaica during the 1930s who began to preach a similar message to one another, leading to the development of Rastafari as a popular, decentralized movement rather than a formally organized religion.

Headquarters: Rastafari is a decentralized social and religious movement and has no official headquarters or formal leadership.

Membership: It is difficult to determine exact numbers. Not only do Rastas have no official membership, but the boundary lines of who qualifies as a true, practicing Rasta are not strictly defined and there are many people, especially in Jamaica and in the reggae music sub-culture, who may not be Rastas in any strict sense but whose spirituality, worldview, and practices are highly influenced by the Rastafari. Still, rough estimates of Rastafari worldwide today usually hover around one million.

Origins and History: Rastafari originated in the 1930s in Jamaica, but it stems from roots that go much further back in Jamaican history.

In 1784, George Liele, an American ex-slave and Baptist missionary, established the first Baptist church in Jamaica in 1784, called the Ethiopian Baptist Church. This is, perhaps, the earliest example of the use of biblical "Ethiopia" as a symbol for African identity in the New World. Over the course of the 19th century and on into the 20th, the idea of "Ethiopia" as an identity symbol for current and former slaves would take a powerful hold in Jamaica and elsewhere.

In the early 1860s, Jamaica experienced a massive and unprecedented influx of former slaves into professing Christian churches in a period often known as the "Great Revival." This movement was not necessarily centered in the biblical gospel as much as in spiritual experience, however, and various forms of folk spiritism and magical practices were brought into the church far more than traditional Christian teachings were embraced by the new "converts." This led to the development of a variety of new "revival" sects and cults, many of whose worship centered on communion with spirits and ancestors as well as mystical "healing" practices even while claiming a surface level affiliation with Christianity. In the 1920's, Pentecostal missionaries arrived and won many to their pews with their attempts to maintain an emphasis on supernatural healing and ecstatic spiritual experience in worship while forbidding communion with any other spirit but God's and attempting to draw more focus to the Bible, repentance, and strict Holy living. Thus, at that time in Jamaica, religion was a central part of life. The religion was steeped in both Christian imagery and animistic spirituality. In most all of its popular forms, Jamaican religion was focused on spiritual power and ecstatic experience over doctrine and theology.

Religion had also long been tied to yearning for political justice and issues of political oppression. The Church of England, which was the established and tax-funded church in Jamaica for much of its history, was often seen as an engine of oppression. On the other hand, perhaps the largest slave rebellion in the history of the British Caribbean Colonies was the "Baptist War," in Jamaica (1831), where Baptists, especially pastor Samuel Sharpe (himself a slave), led what began as a non-violent workers' strike that escalated into an attempted revolution. While the effort was put down with brutal force, the rebellion caught the attention of British parliament and ultimately drew sympathy to the plight of Caribbean slaves, perhaps helping the passage of the law that would abolish slavery in the British empire just three years later. At any rate, the struggle for justice in Jamaican culture was often expressed in religious vocabulary and even tied to specific religious groups which were perceived to be on the side of the oppressors or the oppressed. Politics was, to many, a spiritual struggle and spirituality was, to many, a political matter of power and oppression here and now.

In the early 20th century, a political activist named Marcus Garvey arose as a significant leader in Jamaica and beyond. Among Garvey's causes was the "Back to Africa" movement, which urged those of African descent to return to their ancestral homeland and fought to create the legal and financial opportunities for that to happen. Garvey allegedly said to those he was urging to return to the continent to "look to Africa for the crowning of a black king." Rastas would later interpret this as a prophecy and see Garvey as a "forerunner prophet," of their faith, likened unto John the Baptist. Indeed, some see him as the literal reincarnation of John the Baptist.

In 1930, Ethiopian Prince (or "Ras") Tafari Makonnen was crowned King Haile Sellasie I. This royal name means "Power of the Trinity." He was also called the "Lion of the Tribe of Judah," and the "Elect of God," titles that stemmed from an Ethiopian tradition that their royal line went back to the alleged offspring of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Haile Selassie also carried the title of "King of the Kings of Ethiopia," which the Rastas would later shorten to the biblical divine and messianic title, "King of Kings." Indeed, all of these titles were used by Rastas to define Haile Sellasie I as a messianic figure, often as the promised return of Christ and God incarnate.

With all of this in the background, self appointed itinerant preachers like Leonard Howell began to preach that the coronation of Haile Sellasie I marked the rise of a Messianic Ethiopian kingdom that would ultimately crush the oppressive "Babylon System," bring preeminence to Africa, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity centered in Africa as the true Zion. While the message differed somewhat from one proponent to another, there was a general emphasis on the centrality of Haile Sellasie, the hope or repatriation to Africa, and the need to live apart from the ways of "Babylon," (i.e. Colonialism, industrialism, modern materialism, "white" western social norms, etc). The close ties of Rastas to the smoking and distribution of marijuana, their harsh apocalyptic pronouncements of "blood and fire" upon their perceived enemies, and a minority element of Rastas who did attempt acts of violence and terrorism frequently led to suspicion, marginalization, and even persecution of practicing Rastas, especially during the early decades of the movement. By the 1970s, however, particularly through their success in music and arts, the Rastafari had become a well-entrenched element in Jamaican society and some elements of their lifestyle and practices became increasingly mainstreamed into the broader culture.

With the death of Haile Sellasie I in 1975 and the subsequent deaths of prominent Rastas like Bob Marley in the years that followed, mortality settled into the Rastafari ethos. There had been an expectation among many that Haile Sellasie was immortal (being divine and representing the second coming of Christ). Relatedly, it was believed by many Rastas that Haile Sellasie had ushered in an ever-living age where faithful, practicing Rastas would not die. Some simply refused to believe Haile Sellasie was actually dead, taking it to be a trick by "Babylon" to keep down the faithful (a view still held by a small minority today), but most had to adjust their beliefs and expectations to accommodate the reality of Haile Sellasie's death. Likewise, some claimed that men like Marley died because they had compromised with Babylon's corporate music scene and traded true faithfulness for fame and cultural influence. Most, however, had to come to grips with the fact of Rasta mortality and, again, adjust their beliefs accordingly.

Today, though in the minority, practicing Rastafari can be found in most spheres of Jamaican life and in small communities elsewhere in the Caribbean and in places like North America, Britain, and parts of Africa.

Core Teachings and Practices: There is no central authority among Rastafari and no formal creed to which one must ascribe to be a Rasta, so beliefs can vary greatly from one individual to another. Still, there are general defining principles that one can expect to find in any practicing Rasta.

God: Rastafari is monotheistic. They believe in one God whom they refer to as "Jah" (an abbreviated form of Jehovah or Yahweh). Some Rastas would affirm that God is a Trinity while others would not. Rastas generally believe in a special divine presence of Jah in every person and in a general presence in all natural things. Among some Rastafari, this belief becomes something more akin to Pantheism. While claiming that their conception of "Jah" is the God of the Bible, most Rastas believe that historic Christianity is a deception and a tool of oppression. Many traditional Rastas claim that the God of Christianity is not really Jehovah but is, in fact, Satan.

Jesus: Rastas generally believe that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, but what they mean by these terms varies from one group or individual to the next. They believe that Jesus was a black African Rasta. Among traditional, conservative Rastas, the biblical Jesus is often downplayed with primary emphasis given to Haile Sellasie I as the second coming of Christ. Among some of the more modern Rastafari groups, however, there is a greater focus on Jesus. Groups such as the "Twelve Tribes" and the "Fulfilled Rastafari" go so far as to say that Jesus' Second coming is still future and that Haile Sellasie was not Christ Himself but rather a modern messenger of God and intermediate heir to the throne of David prior to Christ's return. Such views, however, are repudiated as not truly being Rastafari by more traditional groups.

Haile Sellasie I: Some form of veneration of Haile Sellasie is definitional to all Rastafari. The twentieth-century Ethiopian king, Haile Sellasie I, is heralded by traditional Rastafari as the second coming of Jesus and, by many, as Jah in flesh. Some Rastas, however, putting greater emphasis on Jah's presence in every man, look at Haile Sellasie's divinity as the perfect expression of God-in-man that is possible for all Rastas to attain. Haile Sellasie thus becomes the ideal man to which all other men ought to aspire. For the modern, more moderate groups like the "Twelve Tribes," Haile Sellasie is not Christ Himself, but is still a messenger of God and a Davidic king whose words ought to be studied and whose example ought to be emulated.

Scripture: Rastafari generally claim the Bible to be the holy and inspired word of God and often try to proof-text their beliefs through biblical verses. Many Rastas will also claim, however, that the Bible has been corrupted through mistranslation and through intentional editing meant to suppress the supposed true, African history of the Bible, and therefore the Bible is not alone sufficient for the quest for truth. For this reason, some Rastas supplement the Bible with other texts, both ancient apocryphal works and modern Rasta compositions. The primary Rasta teaching, however, is that one must read two books of Jah: the Bible and the spiritual book written in every man's heart. Thus, a high degree of subjective, inward-focused mysticism and emotionalism frequently dominates and subverts sound biblical exegesis.

"InI Conciseness" and the divinity of the self: Rastafari teaches that God is present within every individual. The goal of Rastafari spirituality is to seek an increased consciousness of this inner divinity within humanity and to manifest that divinity in one's self. A common Rastafari aphorism is "God is man and man is God." The goal of the Rasta is enlightenment through an increased consciousness of this inner divine essence.

Ganja: For Rastas, "Ganja" (or Marijuana) is a sacred tool for achieving religious enlightenment and a higher divine consciousness. It is both eaten and smoked. Rastas promote the use of "ganja" recreationally but also use it more formally in the ritual pursuit of religious experience. Some Rasta writers have referred to it symbolically as "taking up the chalice," thus comparing the centrality of smoking ganja in Rastafari to the centrality of Communion in Christianity.

Sin and Salvation: According to Rastafari, the world is under the corruption of the Babylon system that will soon come to an apocalyptic end. Babylon will be overthrown, Africa will prosper, and Ethiopia will rule the world. Those who repudiate the ways of Babylon and are elevated to divine consciousness can become "ever living," while those still ensnared in or promoting the ways of Babylon will be destroyed and die forever. Exactly how this works out varies between different Rasta groups and even between individuals within a given group. Some Rastas, for example, believe in reincarnation. Others believe in a future resurrection. A few even believe that all death is the direct result of compromise with the Babylon system and that a truly faithful Rasta even now will never die. Still others believe that Rastas can transcend to a higher plane of existence, claiming that this is what happened to Haile Sellasie and that he only appeared to die. Very few Rastas have a conception of man's need for atonement for sin. Most are relying on their works and spiritual experiences for their salvation.

Dietary Restrictions: Rastafari generally promote, at a minimum, an adherence to certain Old Testament dietary laws. Many are even stricter, insisting on vegetarianism. Rastafari also promotes "natural" living, forbidding foods and products which they believe to be too processed by men. They attribute many technological aspects of industrialization and modernity as expressions of Babylon, being man's attempt to remake Jah's creation and separate himself from God's intended purpose in things.

Dreadlocks and Dread Talk: In the Rastafari worldview, religion is intimately tied to socio-political issues. As such, "Babylon" is tied to western customs and values, and repudiation of those values is part of spiritual enlightenment. One of the most prominent ways that Rastas do this is through the growing of dreadlocks. Exactly how and why this custom began is not clearly documented, though it is certainly tied to the rejection of western grooming practices and the accentuation of distinctively African features. However it started, it has become a significant symbol to Rastas. They even read dreadlocks back into biblical passages, claiming that Jesus was a dread-lock-wearing Rasta and that the story of Sampson is a story of spiritual power through growing dreadlocks (Judges 16 mentions more than once that Sampson's hair was in "seven locks." What more evidence could you need?) Another expression of this is the development of their own vernacular, often called "dread talk," which intentionally alters the pronunciation of certain words, changes (or "corrects") the meaning of certain words, and creates its own words, usually by changing a syllable of an existing word with the syllable "I." The emphasis on "I," even in their pattern of speech, points back to the Rasta emphasis on the divine self.

Analysis:  Rastafari is an ethnically and politically driven off-shoot of Christianity that downplays sin, deifies the self, undermines the authority of Scripture, and negates the necessity of the cross for salvation. It is a gospel-less counterfeit of Christianity which borrows many biblical stories, figures, and terms while abandoning the only true hope of salvation. While we can (and indeed ought to) sympathize with the history of genuine oppression, poverty, and struggle that led to the invention of the Rastafari religion, our compassion should drive us to bring the gospel and the peace of Jesus Christ to the Rastafari people.

We must emphasize that man is not merely enslaved and oppressed in a "Babylon system" which he must merely repudiate. Man is guilty of sin against a holy God! This is not true of merely one ethnicity, race, or people group. It is true of all!

"What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, 'There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.' 'Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving,' 'The poison of asps is under their lips'; 'Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness' 'Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and misery are in their paths, And the path of peace they have not known.' 'There is no fear of God before their eyes,'" (Romans 3:9-18).

And it may be that some inner sense in your own heart makes you feel as if this were not so. It may be that you feel in your heart that your nature and essence are divine and not the fallen and corrupt nature of man. Yet, God warns us:

"The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9).

The very last thing we ought to be reading is the book of our own hearts! Our hearts are deceitful. Our hearts lie to us. Our inner man misleads us. Perhaps you will say, "but it is not merely my own heart, but the spiritual presence within me that speaks!" But against this, too, God warns:

"But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons," (1 Timothy 4:1).

And again:

"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world," (1 John 4:1).

No, we cannot trust our hearts or the inner voices and inclinations of our soul over the revealed word of God. What we may sense within as some kind of enlightenment is actually what is likely to lead us astray. We are broken, sinful creatures desperately in need of redemption. We are guilty of breaking God's law, and we are ourselves are broken in our very souls and are spiritually dead inside. It's not enough to do the right things, eat the right foods, wear our hair the right way, and feel the right way inside. We need forgiveness and a new birth. This is why Jesus came. He came to serve our sentence and die the death we deserve so that justice can be fulfilled on our behalf and we can be forgiven! He came to give us new life. He came to give us His own life and His own righteousness through the cross and through His resurrection. As the New Testament says:

"For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed," 1 Peter 2:21-24).

We must turn from our sins and our selves and come humbly to God, knowing that we deserve nothing and that we can do nothing for ourselves, but believing that Jesus has come and done it for us:

"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God," (John 3:14-18).

This is the message that we must bring to our Rastafari friends and neighbors. Many Rastas love to talk about what they believe. We need to be willing to listen, remembering that every Rasta's beliefs are a little different. Still, we need to keep the conversation focused. Most Rastas I have met will talk your ear off for hours in a tangential stream of consciences that will vacillate from social issues to historical claims to spiritual issues and back again without any clear defining focus or way forward. We must constantly redirect back to the main issue: how are we made right with God? How do we attain eternal life? How can we know? These are the issues that our Rasta friends most need to think about and the message we most need to share. 

Resources Used:

  • Ennis Edmonds, Rastafari: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012)
  • Gerald Hausman, Rastafarian Children of Solomon (Bear and Co., 2013)
  • Helene Lee, The First Rasta (Lawrence Hill Books, 2003)
  • Joseph Owens, Dread: The Rastafarians of Jamaica (Heinemann Educational Books, 1979)
  • Leonard Barret, The Rastafarians (Beacon Press, 1997)
  • Noel Erskine, From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology (University Press of Florida, 2005)
  • Peter B. Clarke, Black Paradise: The Rastafarian Movement (The Borgo Press, 1994)