By Rick Branch
Founder: Marcus Garvey's philosophy is credited as the
Founding Date: 1930
Official Publication: None
Organization Structure: No official church buildings or
leaders. Each individual group and person is autonomous.
Unique Terms: Babylon is Jamaica or the
establishment. I and I refers to God in all or the
brotherhood of mankind
Other Names: Ras Tafari and Rastas
While it is most often associated with dreadlocks, smoking of
marijuana and reggae music, the Rastafarian religion is much more
than simply a religion of Jamaica. With its beginnings in the
Jamaican slums, Rastafarianism has spread throughout the world and
currently has a membership of over 700,000 (The Rastafarians:
Sounds of Cultural Dissonance, Leonard E. Barrett, Sr., p.
As with many other religious groups, the history of this one also
begins before the group itself. Marcus Garvey, born in 1887, would
direct the philosophical ideologies that would eventually grow into
the Rastafarian movement.
In the early 1920's, Garvey was an influential black spokesman
and founder of the "back-to-Africa" movement. He often spoke of the
redemption of his people as coming from a future black African king
(Magical Blend, June/July 1994, p. 76). On one occasion,
Garvey proclaimed, "Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King,
he shall be the Redeemer" (The Rastafarians, p. 67). Only a
few years later that prediction would be fulfilled in the person of
Ethiopia's king, Haile Selassie. As Barrett has explained, "in the
pantheon of the Rastafarians, Marcus Garvey is second only to Haile
On November 2, 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned king of
Ethiopia. Upon his coronation, he claimed for himself the titles of
"Emperor Haile Selassie (Power of the Trinity) I,
Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God and King of the
Kings of Ethiopia" (Ethiopia and Haile Selassie, Peter
Schwab, editor, p. 11).
After the crowning of Selassie and the apparent fulfillment of
the millennial expectations of Marcus Garvey, the Rastafarian
movement gained a following and officially began in 1930 (The
Rastafarians, p. x).
One of its early leaders was Leonard Howell, who in 1933 was
"arrested by the Jamaican government for preaching a revolutionary
doctrine" (The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, Keith
Crim, editor, p. 601).
While Howell's doctrines [which will be noted later] helped shape
the theology of the movement, his arrest helped shape the movement's
organizational structure. As Barrett explained, "The harassment of
Howell by the police might have been the reason why Rastafarians
have decided to remain leaderless, a decision which has strengthened
the movement" (The Rastafarians, p. 91).
One of the key doctrines of Rastafarians had been their
expectation that they would one day return to Africa, "the Zion
which would be restored to them after centuries in the Diaspora"
(Rastaman, p. 243). Garvey, with his "back-to-Africa"
ideology had inspired much of this hope.
In 1960 this anticipated move seemed potentially possible. With
the help of the Jamaican government, a delegation of Rastafarians
set out on a mission to Africa. "Though no large-scale immigration
to Africa by Jamaicans was achieved, the sending of some Rastafarian
leaders to Africa resulted in the movement's enhanced knowledge of
African realities, and probably diffused the movement's enthusiasm
for immediate repatriation" (The Rastafarians, pp.
An important historical event in the Rastafarian movement
occurred when Haile Selassie visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966. This
event resulted in two profound developments within the movement.
First, Selassie convinced the Rastafarian brothers that they "should
not seek to immigrate to Ethiopia until they had liberated the
people of Jamaica." Second, from that time forth, April 21 has been
celebrated as a "special holy day" among Rastafarians (Ibid,
pp. 158, 160).
On August 27, 1975, Haile Selassie died. With his death came
various forms of rationalization from many Rastafarians. The
responses concerning Selassie's death ranged from "his death was a
fabrication" to "his death was inconsequential because Haile
Selassie was merely a `personification' of God" (Rastaman: The
Rastafarian Movement in England, Ernest Cashmore, pp. 59-60). As
the Magical Blend states, "When Selassie died in 1975, his
divinity did not die with him. According to current belief, the Ras
Tafari lives on through individual Rastafarians" (June/July 1994, p.
Currently, the Rastafarian movement has official branches in
England, Canada, the Caribbean islands and America as well as
members in most of the civilized countries (The Perennial
Dictionary of World Religions, p. 601).
It has also experienced some fragmentation since the death of
Selassie. One of the prominent splinter-groups, known as the Twelve
Tribes of Israel, founded by Vernon Carrington has its headquarters
in New York (The Rastafarians, pp. 210, 227, 236). Other
groups which "claim allegiance to Ras Tafari" are the Ethiopian Zion
Coptic Church and the Ethiopian World Federation (Ibid, p.
As Cashmore has observed, "The belief system of Ras Tafari was so
vague and loosely defined, even at its inception, due to its lack of
a single authoritative voice, that what was to be acceptable
doctrine was largely a matter of individual interpretation"
(Rastaman, p. 7).
Early in the history of the movement, Leonard Howell gave the
Rastafarians six principles. "(1) hatred for the White race; (2) the
complete superiority of the Black race; (3) revenge on Whites for
their wickedness; (4) the negation, persecution, and humiliation of
the government and legal bodies of Jamaica; (5) preparation to go
back to Africa; and (6) acknowledging Emperor Haile Selassie as the
Supreme Being and only ruler of Black people" (The
Rastafarians, p. 85). As Barrett notes, "This first glimpse of
the new doctrine that launched the Rastafarian movement has not
changed significantly over the years" (Ibid).
Aside from these six principles are two overriding concepts that
are key to the Rastafarian system.
First is the idea or teaching about Babylon which refers to the
Jamaican government, the establishment or the white oppressors in
general (Ibid, pp. xiii, 3, 89).
The second concept is that of I and I which has "become arguably
the most important theoretical tool apart from the Babylonian
conspiracy in the Rastafarian repertoire" (Rastaman, p. 66).
Cashmore explains, "I and I is an expression to totalize the concept
of oneness. `I and I' as being the oneness of two persons. So God is
within all of us and we're one people in fact. `I and I means that
God is in all men. The bond of Ras Tafari is the bond of God, of
man. But man itself needs a head and the head of man is His Imperial
Majesty Haile Selassie of Ethiopia'" (Ibid, p. 67).
Other doctrines which are more loosely taught and believed by the
Rastafarians are the following:
1) Rastafarians have a doctrine of avatar which is very similar
to Hinduism. They
believe, "God revealed himself in the person of Moses, who was the
first avatar or savior. The second avatar was Elijah. The Third
avatar was Jesus
Christ. Now the advent of Ras Tafari is the climax of God's
revelation" (The Rastafarians, p. 112). They even teach that
predicted the coming of Haile Selassie (Ibid, p. 106).
2) The devil is actually the god of the White man (Ibid,
3) As with many new religious movements, the Rastafarians only
accept the Bible
conditionally preferring those passages that can be forced to
harmonize with their unique doctrines. "Rastas accept the Bible as their
central text with the proviso that much of its original material had
been deliberately distorted during its translation into English. It
is necessary, therefore, to interpret the Bible as
critically as possible and recognize the aspects of it which might
have been flushed out, included or altered in meaning." Further,
they prefer an allegorical approach to Bible
interpretation claiming that the pages of Scripture should be
searched for "hidden meanings and directives" (Rastaman, p.
4) Women's role in the Rastafarian movement is at best a
subordinate one (Ibid, p. 78).
5) A physical feature that sets the Rastafarians apart from all
other groups is the wearing of their hair in dreadlocks. "Dreadlocks
were inspired by a biblical injunction against the cutting of one's
hair" (Magical Blend, June/July 1994, p. 76).
6) Another commonly held belief among the Rastafarians is their
emphasis on the smoking of marijuana. "Likewise, ganga or marijuana
is considered to be the `holy herb' mentioned in the Bible and its
smoking is a holy sacrament to many" (Ibid, June/July 1994,
p. 76). As Barrett explains, through the use of ganga, the
Rastafarian reaches an altered state of consciousness. In this
altered state, "the revelation that Haile Selassie is God and that
Ethiopia is the home of the Black" is realized. "The herb is the key
to new understanding of the self, the universe, and God. It is the
vehicle to cosmic consciousness" (The Rastafarians, pp.
7) In line with their idea of being the supreme race, the
Rastafarians also believe that they "1/4were the reincarnations of
the ancient tribes of Israel who had been enslaved and kept in exile
by their white oppressors, the agents of Babylon" (Rastaman,
8) True Rastafarians are also vegetarians (The
Rastafarians, p. 126).
As with many other groups which selectively acknowledge biblical
passages, the Rastafarians will only accept those parts of the Bible which
appear to agree with their unique theological perspectives. However,
the following verses may be of some help.
1) Haile Selassie is not the latest avatar of God, for Jesus was the
fullness of God. John 1:16; Eph. 1:20-23; Col. 1:19, 2:9.
2) No race is superior to any other race. Gal. 3:28; Col.
3) While it is true that the Bible does have
meanings on various levels of interpretation, it is not a concealed
book. Also, it is not a book that can be selectively believed. Rom.
15:4; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20.
4) The Rastafarian's view of Jesus being only
one of several "avatars" depreciates Christ's unique
claims to deity and His role as sole mediator between God and man.
John 8:58; Acts 4:12; 1Tim. 2:5.
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