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, ...

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