Hundreds of Rastafarians came together last month in Jamaica, the birthplace of the movement, for the weeklong Rastafari Global Reasoning 2003. The official motto for the worldwide meeting, which centered on planning for the future and calling for greater respect, was "Rastafari Family United for Progress and Development."
While Rastafari certainly maintains a sense of family, it is not a unified bloc. Several subgroups and varying beliefs vie for the soul of Rastafari. These differences in theology, lifestyle, and behaviors all fit within the broad umbrella of Rastafari because, at its heart, it is an Afro-Caribbean identity movement—not primarily a religion with clearly defined, universally accepted dogma and doctrines. However, a growing movement within Rastafari is calling Rastas away from their New Age beliefs and idolization of Haile Selassie I—and to a Trinitarian, orthodox Christian faith.
As Caribbean churches have recently become more welcoming of Rastafarians, reggae music, and Afrocentrism, a greater rapprochement between Rastas and Christians has developed. Growing numbers of Rastas have entered Christian churches and taken Jesus as their Savior while continuing a dreadlocked Rasta lifestyle. But if more Rastas are going to follow this path, their significant belief changes will have to be met with attitude changes in the Christian churches.
Rastas and Christians have much in common
Like Christians, Rastafarians honor Yeshua, the Christ, as worthy of worship. In fact, most Rastas consider themselves uncorrupted Christian people. A large percentage of Rastafarians follow the lead of seminal preacher, Leonard Howell, who referred to Yeshua as "Our Lord" in his foundational book, The Promised Key.
Both movements are fiercely monotheistic. Rastas, like Christians, look to the Bible for divine counsel, keying off the Ten Commandments and Golden Rule to teach respect for God and God's creation, preservation of life, mercy toward opponents, and moderation and holiness toward money, sex, power.
Two significant figures in Rastafari were Christians. Marcus Garvey, an outspokenly Trinitarian Christian from a Free Methodist background, is deemed a prophet in Rastafari. In the early 1900s, Garvey led a movement to create an Africa homeland for blacks. This encouraged the strong sense of Afrocentrism in Jamaica and the Caribbean.
More significant to Rastafari is Haile Selassie I, a devout Ethiopian Orthodox monarch. Formerly named Ras Tafari Makonnen, before his coronation as the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie was thought by early Rastafarian preachers to be the Messiah—or God himself. The Oriental Orthodox Churches have declared Haile Selassie a defender of the Christian faith. In 1997 members of one branch of Rasta, The Twelve Tribes of Israel, declared their faith in Christ alone, but still maintain a place for Haile Selassie in biblical prophecy.
While a common bond between Rastas and Christians, Selassie is also the largest barrier. What separates the two groups the most is the treatment by many Rastas of Haile Selassie as divine. For Christians to reconcile the reverence that Rastas give him is extremely hard. Such reverence is due only to God.
Christians can, however, respect Haile Selassie as a devout Christian emperor, friend of Billy Graham, and outspoken follower of Christ. If desiring a dialogue with Rastas, Christians need to respect the Rastafari position that the emperor is the Davidic king of prophecy, though Christians certainly need not agree with it.
All Rastas need to accept the emperor's own self-denial of deity, as the Twelve Tribes of Israel have done, and follow his lead to full faith in Christ alone for salvation.
Blocks to Unity
Other Rastafarian attitudes and beliefs are blocking more Rastas from embracing orthodox Christianity as their own—but these too are being challenged.
Rastas object strongly to the name Jesus, preferring Yesus, Yeshua, or Kristos because the first ship commissioned to begin the British slave trade was the S.S. Jesus of Lubbock. Rastas suspect the conciliatory motives of Christian churches that historically permitted the conquest of the Americas and black slavery. Christians need to separate Yeshua from the oppression done in his name.
Christian Reggae songs like Carlene Davis and Papa San's "Wish I Knew Then (what I know now / how sweet the name of Jesus sounds)" reach out to Rastas with a new understanding of the name above all names. But caution when using the name of Jesus among Rastas is still recommended.
Rastas also need to drop their idea that the Pope is the Antichrist. The idea originated with the Pope's blessing of Mussolini's troops on their way to conquer Ethiopia, Rastafari's spiritual homeland. A sincere apology and some act of penance from the Roman Catholic Church is definitely in order.
Conservative Rastas, like the Bobo Dreads, need to reexamine their subjugation of women to the extent that menstruating women can be enclosed in-house and fed through a small aperture for a 21-day period each month. The Rasta male propensity for polygyny (serial unmarried mates) must also cease. Rastas insist that promiscuity, child abuse, and homosexuality in Christian churches must also end if Rastafarians are to take Christians seriously.
The Rastafarian use of cannabis (called ganja) is also a great barrier for Christians. Some Rastas, like the outspoken Mutabaruka in his poem "Dispel the Lie," are already critiquing this addictive blight. As Marcus Garvey campaigned against ganja and Haile Selassie outlawed its use in Ethiopia, the Church at large rejects it.
The demonic structures of "Babylon," the world's ungodly systems, are the real enemy of the Rasta camp and the church—not each other. The Rev. Clinton Chisholm, a Jamaican Christian apologist, observes:
Rather than rejecting [Rastas] as we used to … people are beginning to open up with them. I think the increasing sensitivity of the churches in general to things cultural and things ethnic could also catalyze a dialogue. They've added quite a strong corrective to the almost anti-black sentiments of some of the churches in Jamaica and in the region.
They've made us generally more culturally aware, more accepting of ourselves, more at ease with our need to be involved in the cultural expressions of the country. To their credit they've been leaders in the field. People could live with the issue of seeing Ethiopia as the new Zion. They might not agree with them, but they could live with that. But the major doctrinal barrier would be the view of Selassie as God and the view of ganja as a sacrament.
William David Spencer is author of Dread Jesus and coeditor of Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader. He teaches theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary's Boston campus and copastors Pilgrim Church of Beverly, Massachusetts.
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Also appearing on our site today:
Looking for a Dreadlocked Jesus | The author of Dread Jesus talks about the Rastafari call for respect and the many belief structures—Christian and not—inside the movement.
previous christianity today articles on Jamaica include:
The Island of Too Many Churches | Jamaica's fractured fellowship is on the mend. (Oct. 4, 1999)