Sectarians in the Americas: The Rastafari


Bob Marley and his trademark “rasta” dreadlocks

Were it not for Bob Marley, it is likely that few of us would have ever heard of the Rastafari, an admittedly strange cult that, among other things, worships the late Ethiopian King Haile Selassie as divine. While the movement is fractured into numerous factions and “tribes,” it borrows heavily from Christianity and Judaism.

It was Marley and his fellow Reggae musicians, whose lyrics are laced with Biblical quotes, that popularized the uniquely Jamai-can religion. Chief among its idiosyncratic tenets is the use of marijuana in its religious ceremonies and a strong preference for the King James Bible translation. It is from the KJV translation of Psalm 68:4 that the Rastafari take the name of God, “Jah.” This is the only example of the Tetragrammaton YHWH, usually translated “Jehovah”, being abbreviated thusly.

To the Rasti, Jah is the God of the Bible. The Rasti are also Trinitarian, believing that Jesus was, in fact, God; however, according to their reading of the Book of Revelation, they believe the Second Coming has already occurred in the person of Selassie (who, though respectful of the Rasti, pointedly claimed that he was human, not divine). The death of Haile Selassie in 1974 was something of a shock to the Rasti system, resulting in a difference of opinion among the various branches of the movement. Some believe Selassie remains alive spiritually, since God cannot die, while others believe the announcement of his death was simply a hoax.
Rasta Man
Rastaman in Barbados, wearing the Rastafarian colors of green, gold, red and black on a rastacap.
The connection to Judaism is also quite strong, with Rasti believing the black race represents one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Accordingly, they often do not cut their hair (hence the “dreadlocks” for which they are so famous), and generally follow the kosher laws of the Old Testament. Their confidence in the Bible is ambivalent, since they believe “Babylon” (generally oppressive rulers, although often a synonym for unjust white, Western society) has systematically corrupted the message of Jesus in the Bible. Many believe that whole portions of the Scriptures have been purged by “Babylon.”

One could easily jump to the conclusion that the Rastafari religion is just an excuse to smoke marijuana, except that in addition to keeping the kosher law, the Rasti also shun alcohol, coffee, and virtually all other drugs as being the tools of Babylon that serve only to confuse and hinder. There are a number of Old Testament passages which the Rastafari cite as grounds for their use of cannabis, a word they trace etymologically to the root word for “incense.”

How they arrive at the deity of Selassie is a long and circuitous route through a maze of historical incidents, accidents and misreadings of both history and the Bible, but the short answer is Selassie was the only monarch in Africa when the movement began, he had a slew of honorific titles e.g. King of Kings and Lord of Lords already, and oh, by the way, he was the last in an alleged unbroken chain of monarchs dating back to a child born to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, (no doubt part of one of those missing chapters).

Selassie himself was a remarkably sympathetic figure on many fronts. As Italian warplanes made hundreds of passes over Ethiopia, spraying poison gas that killed every living creature in its path, Selassie stood before the League of Nations and noted, if there was no collective security, then the future held no security, at all, for smaller nations and less numerous peoples. He be-came a hero to anti-fascist forces around the world, but the League of Nations did virtually nothing to back their censorious words while continuing to supply Italy with the materiel of war.
Hallie Selassie
Hallie Selassie
When he returned to the throne after the Second World War, Selassie would counsel mercy toward enemies, and in a gesture that served only to indict the League of Nation’s previous failure to support its own claims of collective security, Selassie sent troops to help South Korea thwart the invasion from the North. In the end, it was a communist coup that deposed and imprisoned him, dying a year later under greatly suspicious circumstances. No doubt, Selassie’s admirable conduct in peace and in war, combined with his abandonment by the West, only served to strengthen the Rastafari belief that he was the one who had come to overturn Babylon and repatriate the lost tribe to Zion. Dying in 1975, the place where the communists buried his bones would not be discovered until 1995. After much legal wrangling, he was finally buried in a ceremony conducted by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on November 5, 2000.