Jamaica recently hosted the Global Rastafarian Reasoning Summit, which drew hundreds of dreadlocked Rastafarians, or Rastas, to discuss the group's future.

Two themes surfaced from press coverage of the event. First, Rastas argued for more respect—especially from the Jamaican government. Second, the diversity of their views showed Rastafari to be a diverse movement incorporating many streams of religious and social beliefs.

William David Spencer, author of Dread Jesus (SPCK, 1999) and coeditor of Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader (Temple University Press, 1998), says that both a search for respect and a varied belief structure reach far into the origins of Rastafari.

Is Rasta Christian? That, says Spencer, is a complex question. Christianity Today Assistant Online Editor Todd Hertz interviewed Spencer, who teaches theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary's Boston campus, teaches at Jamaica's Caribbean Grad School of Theology, and copastors Pilgrim Church of Beverly, Massachusetts.

How did Rastafari begin?

Rastafari originally emerged from an impending feeling that Jesus would return to free the slaves. As early as the 1700s, a young woman in the Congo prophesied that a black Christ had been born in Sao Salvador.

By the 1800s, there was a strong sense among blacks in the Caribbean that a liberator was coming to call the black people back to a nation of their own. This feeling maintained a pan-African "Ethiopian" identity for the kidnapped Africans living in the Caribbean and the West.

Out of this environment came a period of the early 1900s where leaders began to forge strong movements out of Jamaica's reverence for Africa. You also see at this time a lot of figures, often calling themselves princes or prophets, being lifted up as supposed messiahs.

How did this consciousness or feeling begin to form into a movement?

Much of it has to do with Marcus Garvey, a Trinitarian Christian of the Free Methodist tradition who was very political and this-worldly. Garvey led a movement to set aside a number of states in Africa to create a true African homeland because so much of Africa was under white domination. He was eventually imprisoned, deported, and died in England broke and discredited. Still, his impact on Jamaica was widely felt.

Just before Garvey died, the most significant of the prophets came to the fore in Jamaica: Alexander Bedward. After attracting a large group of followers by healing and preaching, he announced that on December 31, 1920, he would ascend into heaven like Jesus. After three days, he was led off to an insane asylum.

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In Garvey and Bedward you see both sides of the spectrum—the spiritual, in Bedward, and the political, in Garvey. And both groups became leaderless within 30 years of each other. That left large groups of Jamaicans leaderless, but with intense feelings.

Then, on November 2, 1930, Jamaicans heard of an Ethiopian emperor who was crowned with the titles "Lord of Lords," "King of Kings," and "Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah."

This is the actual beginning of the Rastafari movement. The name comes from the birth name of the new Ethiopian emperor. Although coronated as Haile Selassie I, he was named Tafari at birth. ["Ras" is a title that Tafari gained as he rose politically in Africa.]

Out on the streets of Jamaica come these preachers announcing, "Jesus has returned—this time black" or "We've had a visitation from the Son, and now we are being visited by the Father." These two messages are important because they each lead to what Rastafari is today.

Who were the leaders of each of these two movements?

On one side, Leonard Howell began preaching that God the Father was present in a way that recalled appearances of Vishnu in Hinduism. Howell at the time was hanging around with the East Indians, so his take on Rasta was very Hindu-oriented.

On the other side of the spectrum, Joseph Hibbert was more Bible-oriented. He announces that this is really Jesus returned, but this time black.

Hibbert and Howell's brands of Rastafari led to the three of the most prominent types we still see today:

  • The Nyabingi, the New Age branch that descends from the Howell brand of Rastafari, which advocates that anyone can be God, or "Jah."

  • The 12 Tribes of Israel, which developed from the Hibbert branch. They are basically Christian, have a place in their theology for Selassie, and consider themselves very much Rasta.

  • Independents. They go to Christian churches, still consider themselves Rasta, and confess Jesus. There's a whole bunch of independents floating around with all kinds of theology.

How did Rastafari grow after the emergence of Haile Selassie I?

Howell took a very interesting turn. He gathered followers, bought a plantation house, and fortified it. They needed money to support themselves, so they actually enslaved the neighbors to raise cash crops. One of those crops was ganja, which is how marijuana got into the Rasta movement.

In 1935 Howell wrote The Promised Key to prove the divinity of Haile Selassie I. Basically he just ripped off an earlier book, The Royal Parchment, and converted it to apply to the emperor. As Howell invested more time into this Hindu perspective, he announced that he is Halie Selassie. That didn't go well with followers, and he eventually died pretty much forgotten. Nevertheless, the slant that he put on Rasta was embedded in the movement.

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A watershed moment came when Selassie was deposed from Ethiopia and rumors claimed that he died. The Rastas asked, "How can God die twice?" The movement was in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Dennis Forsyth, a professor at the University of the West Indies, created a revisionist Rastafari theology. He melded the Howell-side Rasta with H. Spencer Lewis's Rosicrucian movement, which said there is a Christ spirit outside us that can rest on anyone. In Rastafari for the Healing of the Nations, Forsyth proposed that it was never Haile Selassie I who was Christ, but the "lion spirit" within him. This creates the New Agey feel of some Rastafari that we see today.

How did the Hibbert side of Rastafari grow?

It continued to become more biblical. The more that Rastas learned of Haile Selassie I, the more they saw he was a devout Christian. He even traveled to Jamaica, denied being the savior, and pointed to Christ as the true messiah.

This group of believers developed the Twelve Tribes of Israel under the prophet Gad. In 1997, Gad went onto the big radio station in Jamaica and declared that he believed in Jesus uniquely. When asked about Selassie, Gad said, "As a man, Selassie said he was saved by Jesus Christ."

So what makes this group different from Orthodox Christianity? They see a place for Selassie in prophecy as part of the human aspect of the Davidic line. They see him as the king of humanity, but not the savior. Jesus and Jesus alone is the Savior.

With so many differences within Rastafari, what makes someone a Rasta?

There is no official doctrine, so you really can be anything and still call yourself Rastafarian. There are non-Selassie Rastas. There are Rastas who are against ganja. Adherents to Rastafari fall all over the map in a number of categories. Because of such variance, tensions exist.

But the movement can easily embrace the Nyabingi view, the Twelve Tribes, and even those not in on the religious view at all. Ultimately, it's an identity movement. Rasta is an Afro-Caribbean consciousness identity more than a religion. You don't have to believe anything to be a Rasta. It was never about the religious dimension; it was always about finding an identity that was African-based. The real appeal is that it's a movement among the poorest of the poor that gives them stature and a powerful voice.

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Has Rastafari as a movement always been about finding respect?

The Rasta call for respect goes back to the very beginning. In fact, it's what attracted many adherents to it. Even though Jamaica is about 85 to 90 percent black, there is a historical color preference. People with the darkest skin were always placed on the farthest margins of the society. When the opportunity came for an Afro-Caribbean movement came along, they embraced it.

Originally, there was no respect for Rastfari, even in Jamaica. They were called "the dirty Rastas." Rasta elders went to the University of the West Indies and asked for the school to do a study of Rastfari to show to the government. The study was published in 1960, and republished in 1968, but still in 1969 there was no public forum for the Rastas. But two things were happening to bring Rasta more prominence: well-known musicians gravitated to Rastafari and respected professors from the West Indies began to take up the Rasta lifestyle.

After years of little respect, the interest of musicians and professors brought Rastafari into the public sphere. At one point, Rastas even presented Jamaica a plan to restructure the government. They then started running for office. They didn't win any high governmental positions, but they were being recognized and affecting politics.

Today Rasta is established in the islands, but adherents still feel they have never risen to the top positions of society or government. In a way, their position is not that different from evangelicals. Both groups have been written off by the public at large and have long strived for political influence.

Related Elsewhere:

Also appearing on our site today:

Could Rastas and Christians Really Unite? | There's more in common than you might think, but some factors keep adherents wary of one another.

Previous Christianity Today articles on Jamaica include:

The Island of Too Many Churches | Jamaica's fractured fellowship is on the mend. (Oct. 4, 1999)