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Witnessing to Rastafarians

Donna F.G. Hailson

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See Bob Marley and Rastafarianism


(Part One: Background)
The word “Rastafarianism” often calls to mind the stereotypical images of dreadlocks (long braids or natural locks of hair), ganja (marijuana), the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, and the reggae rhythms of Bob Markley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer. But, according to William David Spencer, coeditor of Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader (Temple University, 1998), and author of the forthcoming Dread Jesus (SPCK), all or none of these elements may apply to the religious reality of individual Rastafarians, as Rastas may also shave their heads, eschew marijuana, and live in a locale far removed from Jamaica.

“Rastafarianism is decentralized,” notes Spencer, “so there is nothing that defines (in toto) what Rastafarianism is.  There are no universely acknowledged leaders, no universely agreed-upon defining principles. It is a black consciousness movement — Afro-Caribbean — and there is a bifarcation between the religion and its accompanying social consciousness so people can appreciate what Rastas are trying to do socially while not embracing the religion.”1

The movement “has been recognized not only as one of the most popular Afro-Caribbean religions of the late twentieth century, gaining even more popularity than Voodoo, but also as one of the leading cultural trends in the world…. A June 1997 estimate puts the number of practicing Rastafarians worldwide at one million, with more than twice that number of sympathizers and many million more reggae fans.”2

The movement takes its name from the title “Ras Tafari.” In the Ethiopian (Amharic) language, ras means “head, “ “prince,” or “field marshal,” and tafari means “to be feared.”3 Within the system of Rastafarianism, the term is a reference most particularly to Ras Tafari Makonnen (1892–1975), who became the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I (his Christian baptismal name) upon his coronation in 1930.

One essayist from Jamaica, Seretha Rycenssa, defines a “true Rasta” as “one who believes in the deity of the Ethiopian monarch’… sees black liberationist Marcus Mosiah Garvey as his prophet… sticks to [his] path, does not shave, cut or straighten the hair, rejects the customs of ‘Babylon society’ [which refers to political and economic domination and cultural imperialism], and ‘looks on his blackness and sees that it is good and struggles to preserve it.’”4 While Spencer would challenge the universality of much of this definition, he would agree that Rycenssa’s characterization is certainly accurate for much of Rastafarianism.

Spencer notes that Rastafarianism traces its roots to the Ethiopian consciousness movement in the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This popular front involved a looking back to Africa as the “motherland” and a focus on the biblical promise that out of Africa would come princes: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God” (Ps. 68:31; KJV). Spencer asserts, “Lots of folks started saying they were the Promised One including (the self-styled) Prince Thomas Makarooroo, Prince Shrevington Mitcheline, and the Prophet Bedward. All failed.”

Then Marcus Garvey, a devout Christian, came along in the 1920s, promoting an Afrocentric view of life that incorporated the decolonization of Africa and a “Back to Africa” resettlement movement. Garvey also sought to bring a black alternative to dominant Eurocentric interpretations of Scripture. Many view him as “a forerunner of Haile Selassie [and] Rastas regard Garvey as a prophet in the same light as the biblical John the Baptist,”5 even though Garvey challenged the view of Selassie as divine and disavowed association with Rastafarianism when it emerged in 1930.

In that year, on November 2, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned emperor of Ethiopia and was lauded with the titles: “Lion of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings” (see Rev. 5:5; 19:16). “This sent a shock wave through Afro-Caribbean culture,” Spencer says. “In the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, preachers like Joseph Hibbert, started declaring that he (Haile Selassie I) was the long awaited Messiah, the second coming of Christ.”

Thus was born one track of Rastafari, that looked to Selassie as the living God and black messiah who would overthrow the existing order and usher in a reign of blacks. Selassie rejected this worship and denied that he was divine. Yet, despite his denials, when Selassie died in 1975, some Rastafarians viewed the event as a “disappearance,” and the movement only gained in influence and popularity as it capitalized on the elements of mythmaking and mystery. Nevertheless, this “disappearance” precipitated some changes in Rastafarian theology (“Rastology”). Nathaniel Samuel Murrell writes:

For example, brethren have reinterpreted the doctrine of repatriation as voluntary migration to Africa, returning to Africa culturally and symbolically, or rejecting Western values and preserving African roots and black pride. The idea that the ‘white man is evil’ has become less prominent in later Rastafarian thought, and the concept of Babylon has broadened to include all oppressive and corrupt systems of the world… [Also] under the influence of some articulate sistren… many brethren and Rasta camps have had to reevaluate their patriarchal view of sexuality. Rastafari sistren are becoming more vocal and active in the movement, especially in the Twelve Tribes of Israel [one of the largest and most influential groups in Rastafari].6

Through the messianic track has continued to focus on Selassie as the second coming of Jesus, the Twelve Tribes sect 7 has moved in a more biblical direction in recent years. The more these followers have delved into Selassie’s writings and examined his life, the more they have come to realize that he was a follower of Jesus. Spencer insists that the best opportunity for evangelism is with such people and that the work involves “moving them from worshipping Haile Selassie as God to worshipping Haile Selassie’s God: Jesus”

There is one particularly hopeful sign found within the Twelve Tribes. For many years, this sect — founded by Vernon Carrington, the ‘Prophet Gad” — held to the belief that Selassie was Jesus Christ returned. But, on July 13, 1997, in his first public interview over IRIE-FM, the largest independent reggae radio station in Jamaica, the Prophet Gad declared that the movement had shifted to faith in Jesus Christ. Gad declared, in the distinctive Jamaican patois, “Christ is to return and sit on the throne of David… Christ the same yesterday, today and forever. And even after his majesty say, him saved not by the man character but by the blood of Jesus Christ.”8

Spencer says most members of the Twelve Tribes still believe Haile Selassie was at least a prophet, but “the better followers they are of Haile Selassie (Selassian Christians), the better Christians they are. There is one catch here, however: the emperor was a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which holds to monophysitism (mono physis, one nature) — believing that Jesus’ humanity was filtered or subsumed through His divinity. They believe His divinity takes precedence so they are Nicean but not Chalcedonian. Thus, it is important to keep the movement going past Selassie.”

Spencer notes another track that has sprung up alongside the messianic track. This Rastafarian group traces its roots to Leonard Percival Howell and has definite Hindu elements. Some time in the early to mid 1930s, Howell produced a 14-page pamphlet, The Promised Key, in which he posited Haile Selassie I as an appearance of God the Father. Spencer claims this laid the groundwork for a second track within Rastafarianism that is more “Hindu-influenced with lots of Rosicrucianism in it. A lot of the leaders in this track have also been Masons.” The result has been a sort of Rastafarian pantheism that looks for “the Lion Spirit in each of us: the Christ spirit.”

In 1973, Joseph Owens, one of the first nonblack scholars to pursue ethnographic research among the Rastas in Jamaica, published a summary of Rastafarian theology as he saw it. These points included, as summarized by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell: the belief that “God is man and man is God” (as evidenced in the pantheistic track); that “salvation is earthly… that human beings are called to celebrate and protect life… that the spoken word as a manifestation of the divine presence and power can [both] create and bring destruction… that sin is both personal and corporate…[and that Rasta] brethren are the chosen people of Jah to manifest God’s power and promote peace in the world.9

Though Rastas may differ in their religious beliefs and through scholars may differ in their views on what Rastas believe, all Rastas are in agreement as to the Babylonian nature of life in the African diaspora, and all declare their psychological and cultural rejection of the values and institutions of Babylon. In “reasoning sessions” (through which Rastology and philosophy is debated), in the lyrics of reggae music, and in the “livity’ (the Rasta lifestyle of healthy dietary practices, preservation of the environment, adherence to doctrinal teachings and ceremonial practices), Rastafarians seek to grow in “I-ness” or “somebodiness,” that is, in self-confidence.

“I-ness” is an important concept in Rastafarianism wherein “iration” is a synonym for creation or production; “i-ssembly” is a meeting of Rastas for reasoning and “groundation”; “itations” are meditations and reflections on life in contemporary society; and “iyaric’ is dread talk that favors the use of “I.”

Rastafarianism is not a reform Christian movement. Nor is it a Christian or an African traditional religion. Nathaniel Samuel Murrell concludes:

[It is] a different kind of religious species among New World (if not New Age) or nontraditional religions, one that is distinctly Caribbean. Like its antecedents within the Africa diaspora… Rastafari is a modern Afro Caribbean cultural phenomenon that combines concepts from African culture and the “Caribbean experience” (social, historical, religious and economic realities) with Judeo-Christian thought into a new sociopolitical and religious worldview. So while Rastafarian beliefs and practices are influenced by such Africanisms in Jamaican culture, Rastafari’s rise and ethos are driven by social, economic, and political forces in the region.10

The significance of these theological, sociological, and psychological distinctives will become clear in Part Two as we consider how to effectively share the Christian gospel with Rastas.

 
Notes

  1. William David Spencer, personal interview, 13 April 1999. All quotes from Spencer are taken from this interview. Spencer’s forthcoming Dread Jesus will provide an extensive study of the place of Jesus Christ in Rastafari.
  2. Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, “Introduction: The Rastafari Phenomenon,” Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader, ed. Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1998), 1.
  3. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3d ed.
  4. Murrell, 2.
  5. Clinton Hutton and Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, “Rastas Psychology of Blackness, Resistance and Somebodiness,” Chanting, 43.
  6. Murrell, “Introduction: The Rastafari Phenomenon,” Chanting, 6.
  7. Most Rastafarian intellectuals have been involved within this expression of Rastafarianism, which included the late reggae musician Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley.
  8. Messian Dread, trans., “The Beloved Prophet Gad,” inter. Andrea Williams, IRIE-FM, Jamaica, 13 July 1997.
  9. Murrell, “Introduction,” 5-6. Note: Rastafarianism has a weak theology of death. In Part Two, we will consider how this provides an opening for the Christian gospel.
  10. Ibid., 4.

 

Part Two: Reaching Out
Rastafarianism presents Christians with a challenging evangelistic opportunity. The popular Afro-Caribbean religion is centered on devotion to Haile Selassie I, the deceased emperor of Ethiopia. Dreadlocks, ganja, reggae music, a rejection of  “Babylon society” (political, economic, and cultural imperialism), and the promotion of “I-ness” (black pride) often (stereo)typify Rastafarians. What is most typical of Rastafari, however, is an incredible diversity of religious beliefs that crowd under its umbrella.

Part One of this two-part series described this modern phenomenon as a decentralized black consciousness movement with no universally acknowledged leaders and no universally agreed upon defining religious principles. In fact, the roots of this popular front can be traced to the Ethiopian consciousness movement of the late 1800s and 1900s, which involved a looking back to Africa as the “motherland” and a promulgation of the hope that out of Africa would come a black Messiah.

When Ras Tafari Makonnen became emperor of Ethiopia and took the name Haile Selassie I in 1930, he was lauded with the titles “Lion of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings.” Many believed the Messiah had arrived.

Throughout his life, however, Selassie persisted in denying that he was divine and directed people instead to his Lord — Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, devotion to the emperor continued to grow and has increased since his death in 1975.

Today, there are two primary tracks within Rastafari. One sees Selassie as the second coming of Jesus Christ. The other, more Hinduistic in its theology, views Selassie as an avatar of sorts. This second track embraces a pantheism that looks for the Lion Spirit or Christ Spirit in all. In addition, coexisting along with these two tracks are a dizzying array of beliefs on the nature of the divine.

The movement’s greatest continuity lies not in doctrine but in the sociological threads running through it. These include the movement’s Afro-centrism; its rejection of Western imperialism; its hope for a black Messiah; its desire to provide adherents with a positive self-identity; and its will to effect change in social and political structures, in the natural environment, and in each human being. All of these principles need to be kept in mind when presenting the gospel to the individual Rasta.

There are several other points to remember in witnessing. Rastas often believe salvation in witnessing. Rastas often believe salvation to be earthly (in terms of systemic change) and have a sketchy theology of the afterlife. Rastafari’s appeal often centers in its social consciousness rather than in its religious principles, and the prime purveyor of Rastafarian theology is reggae. Reggae music “speaks” to people outside of Jamaica, William David Spencer says, because it is a music of protest. “Those who are experiencing oppression within their respective countries relate.” 1

Some members of the movement have a deep antagonism toward those they view as the oppressors. Rastafari is a post-colonial phenomenon that can trace some of its roots to Christianity. In fact, many who have embraced this system of belief came out of the churches and see Rastafari as a reform movement within Christianity.

When sharing the gospel with Rastafarians, one should view each Rasta as an individual and not as a “member” of a system. The first step, therefore, is to embrace the Rasta as a friend and to ask questions to discern who the person is and what he or she actually believes. What will count is your own authenticity and your willingness to share yourself.

A presentation of the gospel to a Rasta must be divorced from any Western definition of the gospel. In Defending Black Faith, Craig S. Keener and Glenn Usry address the question, “What do you say when someone claims that Christianity is a white religion?” 2 They cite Philip’s presentation of the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch, as recounted in Acts 8:26–36, noting that the first Gentile Christian was an Ethiopian. In this book and in Black Man’s Religion, Keener and Usry trace the movement of Christianity in Africa prior to the arrival of the European missionaries. Because Christianity is for everyone, that means it is a black person’s religion as well. It is a faith that is “contextual to each of our cultures…yet [is] supracontextual in Christ in that we enter a new context: the transcultural reign of God.” 3

One should also avoid trying to defend or excuse the evil done in Jesus’ name in the past. William Spencer advises, “When evangelizing Rastas, move to the parable of the wheat and tares: the farmer plants the field and weeds spring up in the midst of the wheat. Simply say, ‘This is what happens in the Christian church. The evil one has put false people in who engage in lying, cheating, stealing. These weeds are not Christians…’” 4

We must also admit that genuine Christians have not always behaved in ways that honor the Savior. We must not defend the indefensible.
 

[Also See The Dark Side Of Church History   And  The Real Murderers: Atheism or Christianity?
 

Many Rastas are open to a consideration of the Bible and to discussions of Jesus Christ. In fact, one branch of the messianic track of Rastafarianism — the Twelve Tribes — appears to have moved in a more biblical direction in recent years. As was noted in Part One, the more these particular followers have delved into Selassie’s writings and his life, the more they realize that he was a follower of Jesus. Spencer insists that the best opportunity for evangelism is with such people and that the work involves “moving them from worshipping Haile Selassie as God to worshipping Haile Selassie’s God — Jesus.” 5

Tommy Cowan, one of Jamaica’s foremost reggae concert and record producers, was baptized in Kingston’s Family Church on the Rock (an independent charismatic church) in 1998. At that time he said, “The supreme being is God Almighty. His Majesty (Haile Selassie) pray to God Almighty and I know that has always been a part of his undertaking’...[a local Ethiopian Orthodox Church] spokesperson Tessa Mikeal Poyser said, ‘He (Emperor Selassie) is not God, he is defender of the faith…a Christian just like I am, a normal man like me.’” 6

Many within Rastafari  also look to Marcus Garvey as a prophet of the movement. When witnessing, it might be helpful to share the following from an address Garvey delivered in 1928 at the Century Theater in London:

    I believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost; I endorse the Nicean Creed; I believe that Jesus died for me; I believe that God lives for me as for all men; and no condition you can impose on me by deceiving me about Christianity will cause me to doubt Jesus Christ and to doubt God. I shall never hold Christ or God responsible for the commercialization of Christianity by the heartless men who adopt it as the easiest means of fooling and robbing other people out of their land and country. 7

In contrast to such confessions of the Christian faith, many Rastas are, as I’ve noted, more New Age or Hindu in orientation. Consequently, the approach with these people should be to counter the concepts of pantheism (or self-divinity). One approach is to take the individual through the Bible to demonstrate the inconsistency of pantheism with the Scriptures. Another is to use the “world-view-independent principles of evaluation” posited by David K. Clark and Norman L. Geisler in their Apologetics in the New Age.8 They suggest that philosophical ideas be tested to see if they meet reasonable standards of consistency, coherence, comprehensiveness, and congruity.

We’ve seen that Rastafari speaks to the desire to bring about justice and equity in society and political structures, as well as to the desire to heal the planet and heal the self. Christianity is about nothing if it is not about transformation — through Jesus Christ. In recent years, however, Judeo-Christianity has been blamed for the world’s environmental crises as critics have misread the biblical mandate of Genesis 1:28 to subdue the earth. Christians also have been faulted for their part in the spread of Western imperialism, and individual Christians have not always presented the best witness for Christ.

Again, all of these failings must be acknowledged and overcome. First, Christianity should not be blamed for the abuse of the world’s resources. Rather, sinful human beings have disobeyed the Lord’s command to be stewards of the earth. Second, we must admit that some missionaries were “blind to their own ethnocentrism” and were thus “predisposed not to appreciate the cultures of the people to whom they went” and subsequently “developed them according to Western standards and suppositions.” 9 Of course, this has not been true of all missionaries. The vast majority were well-intentioned, desiring only to share Jesus Christ.

As we admit the imperfect outworkings of the faith through the past centuries, we can also admit that we are not perfect ourselves and this is why we all need the Savior Jesus Christ. Only through Him is true transformation possible, and only through Him can we have eternal salvation.

Donna F.G. Hailson
Donna F.G. Hailson is a researcher, writer, and speaker on contemporary culture, new religious movements, Christian apologetics, and church renewal. Currently a visiting professor at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, she has edited, coauthored, or authored several works, including The Goddess Revival (Baker) and a volume on radical spiritual feminism, From Truth to Myth, forthcoming from Bristol House.
 

Notes

  1. William David Spencer, personal interview with the author, 12 April 1999.
  2. Craig S. Keener and Glenn Usry, Defending Black Faith: Answers to Tough Questions about African-American Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 13.
  3. Aida Besancon Spencer and William David Spencer, eds., The Global God: Multicultural Evangelical Views of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 17.
  4. William David Spencer, personal interview.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Reginald Allen, “No Change for Born-Again Tommy: Yes Indeed!” The Sunday Gleaner, Kingston, Jamaica, 10 May 1998, sect. E.
  7. William David Spencer, Dread Jesus (London: SPCK, 1999), 134.
  8. See David K. Clark and Norman L. Geisler, Apologetics in the New Age: A Christian Critiqued of Pantheism, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 137–38.
  9. David J.
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