Posted: Friday, September 12, 2003
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It was as if I had been struck by a lightning-bolt when I first heard the music of Bob Marley in 1976. I was overwhelmed by the power of the music and the potency of the words.. Here was music of revolution: a biting political message, a cry for justice and freedom, and a deep conviction of the possibility that there can be reconciliation, even in the face of a monstrous history. But perhaps what struck me most was that from among the poorest of the poor on this planet, I sensed a powerful joy. I myself was in despair about the world, at the tender age of 19. I was aware that I was one of the privileged ones--:white, American, college student... so how could these people radiate such joy? I wanted that. I wanted to know what gave these people such joy in the face of such suffering, so much greater than my own. And so, I learned all I could about Rastafari. I have been led along through these years from one question for study and meditation to another, reasoning with many Rastas along the way.
What I write here then is the result of those years. I am attempting to define Rastafari for no one, but I feel it is important to give words to the elements of Rastafari which have been so powerful for me.
What can be said about Rastafari that would be true for all Rastas?
Some Rastas interpret the Bible literally.
Some interpret the Bible metaphorically.
Some reject the Bible altogether.
Some study various spiritual and religious traditions.
Others think this is blasphemy.
Some Rastas worship Haile Selassie as JAH, as God.
Some worship Jesus Christ, or see these two as having a single identity.
Some worship neither.
Some Rastas embrace Selassie's Christianity
Others are not so comfortable.
Some Rastas see the roots of Rasta in African spirituality.
Some know nothing about African spirituality.
Some Rastas are Garveyites.
Some are pan-African activists.
Some Rastas are other sorts of political activists.
Some say activism is a waste of time in Babylon.
Some Rastas believe in a Rasta priesthood and Rasta churches.
Some do not.
Some Rastas believe in physical repatriation to Ethiopia, seeing it as Zion as described in the Bible.
Some do not.
Some Rastas view ganja as a sacrament.
Some do not.
Some Rastas wear dreadlocks.
Some do not.
Some Rastas adhere to a strict dress-code.
Some do not.
Some Rastas belong to specific orders, like Bobo Ashanti, Nyabinghi, Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Some do not.
Some Rastas reject the idea of whites claiming Rasta.
Some do not.
Some Rastas believe women are lesser beings and have special rules for their behavior and participation.
Some do not.
I am sure others could add to this list. So the question is, obviously, what is Rastafari and what is a Rasta?
Rastafari as a movement began in one of the poorest, blackest, places in the world, in Jamaica, inspired by Marcus Garvey as a call for Black unity, Black identity, and Black empowerment. It drew on the imagery and worldview of Christianity, which is the prevalent religious orientation in Jamaica, and viewed social and political revolution in terms of the Christian revelation.. Some of the first Rastas saw in Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia the final return of Jesus Christ to usher in a New Heaven and New Earth, to break the chains of racism, injustice, oppression. To "set the captives free."
The Rasta 'trod' in life is very often described in terms of the Exodus out of Egypt, the return from Babylon, the return to Zion, the return home. What is envisioned is a restoration of the original intention of creation, just as the Bible describes.
Some interpret this literally as a return to Ethiopia, Selassie's home, the world's oldest Christian kingdom. Others see this 'repatriation' as an internal process of reconcilement, the breaking of the bonds of 'mental slavery' so that one's true self can be revealed, one's true vision restored. So in Rastafari you have existing side by side mystics, who see man/woman and God as one, and 'stricter 'ones who seek to adhere to the letter of Hebrew law and read the Bible literally. Now it is quite an achievement that Rastas of such radically different orientations can tolerate one another.
I think that this tolerance exists because the real battle is the battle against the forces of white supremacy and global domination. These are the forces against which the first Rastas asserted Black identity and Black unity.
And here is why so many whites, ironically, are attracted to Rastafari. It is a way of expressing their own resistance to the 'Babylon system', even though they were born into it and partake, willing or not, of its privileges. As much as Rasta gives Blacks a way to deal with the historical pain of being born black, it offers Whites a way to deal with the pain of being born white. It offers a vision of unity, in which blacks and whites together can work to dismantle systems of global 'downpression'. Rastafari also offers whites a way to reconcile with their own heritage, to be Jewish or Christian, to return to a religious ideology many felt had to be rejected because of the way it has been used as an instrument of oppression against nonwhites. Rastas speak of being the 'real Jews', the 'real Christians' of this time, feeling that they have gotten to the heart of the Bible's teachings about justice, unity, and love.
The concept of "I and I", which is so central to Rastafari, reflects a radical identification of man in God, God in man, and the unity of all beings: "One Love". From "I and I", it is not far to travel to "I am God". In the same way that Selassie (and Jesus) is both man and God, so may I be, with the proper conduct in my life, the true livity. And this reconciliation of humans and God, of spirit and flesh, takes place here, in history.
History: Biblical history, the history of Africa, and of Black slavery, are central concerns of many Rastas. As is remembrance-"Do you remember the days of slavery?" (Burning Spear) The reconciliation and redemption that Rastas envision is to take place here, on earth. "We sick and tired of their ism schism game/ die and go to heaven in Jesus name,/ we know when we understand/ almighty God is a living man." ---Marley and Tosh
As Rasta has developed, and as individuals develop spiritually through Rasta, questions arise for many. Is the religion forced upon Blacks by the slavemasters really the appropriate road back to their true identities as Africans? This question has led many Rastas to look closely at African spirituality, which always found its expression in the slaves' interpretation of Christianity anyway. Caribbean Christianity and American Black Christianity contain strong elements of far older African traditions. Voudon (or Santeria or Candomble) is a striking example of the wedding of indigenous black spirituality with Christian imagery. In the Yoruba tradition of West Africa, which so many slaves brought across the ocean with them, the gods, or orishas, are close to humans, and it is possible to 'call them down' to inhabit human bodies. This belief in some ways could not be more opposed to the Christian rejection of the flesh, but then, one could say that Jesus the man was 'ridden' by YHWH in the same way an orisha 'rides' his or her human 'horse', called down to physical incarnation by drum and by dance.
The Rasta/African preoccupation with history and ancestors also led many back naturally to the Egyptian and Ethiopian Kushite traditions. What is being discovered by many, including even white scholars, threatens to turn some of the original assumptions of Rastafari on their ear. The oldest human statement of the god-man idea, the I and I, is found in the "Book of Coming Forth by Day", The Egyptian Book of the Dead. The importance of human conduct in revealing to a person his/her true identity of oneness with God is at the heart of these Egyptian texts.
As the 20th century proceeded, and much forgotten or distorted history was unearthed, and as archaeologists discovered more, a far different view of the world has emerged than the one which was so prevalent in the 1930's. when Rastafari as a modern movement first began. A compelling case has been made by many scholars that the source of Judeo-Christian mythology and theology (not to mention Hindu and Buddhist), and the Greek Civilization, Europe's mother-culture, is indeed African to a large degree. It is easy to see that the vast achievement of the Egyptian civilization in particular accounts for the dissemination of African values throughout the world. More and more scholars agree that the monolithic cultures of Northern Europe (which are found on the sea-coast of the Atlantic) and South and Central America must be attributed to the influence of sea-going ancient Africans.
And even further, most geneticists and archaeologists now agree that we are all African in origin, every human being, and that every human being lived in Africa as little as 40.000-60.000 years ago. "The whole world is Africa". (Black Uhuru)
These discoveries have shaken the world as we know it, and the full implications have yet to be felt. More and more Rastas are rejecting the Judeo-Christian worldview in favor of their own, indeed of our own, far-older, and in most cases, far more subtle and refined, indigenous African traditions.
Rastas learn that the 'ras', the crown of uncombed locks, was seen as a sign of wisdom by that ancient Egyptians. The Pharoahs even wore wigs of ras to symbolize their recognition of the wisdom gained by those who went into the wilderness seeking wisdom, and came out with matted, long hair. The Hindu 'saddhus' retain the tradition to this day.
Some Rastas still remain in the 'strict interpretation' camp, adhering to the Bible, while others are exploring the ways in which all spiritual/religious expression on the earth is one, and springs from a single source, which is Africa. I think it is inevitable that more and more Rastas will allow themselves to come around to this worldview, especially since the most fervent Rasta call is for global One Love and unity. In African history we have a striking confirmation of the possibility that all humankind can come together as one in a recognition of our common 'roots.'
The idea of 'Roots' has always been an essential component of Rasta, roots as in original humans living in a natural state of oneness with each other and the earth, roots as in history, roots as in the oneness of all under JAH in creation. This idea of the rediscovery of one's roots in terms of Blackness, in terms of history, as a way to break the chains of 400 years of physical and mental slavery, has naturally led Rastas back to Africa with new eyes, and has transformed Rasta itself.
Many Afrocentric Rastas find themselves in a different relation with the figure of 'Selassie I' than when they first began their Rasta journey. Worshiping Selassie as the One God either becomes impossible for them, or they view this metaphorically, or they engage in vigorous rationalizations and mental acrobatics, for the sake of Rasta unity. It is possible that the symbol of Selassie will fade away altogether from Rasta, viewed as something that made sense for its time, but is no longer helpful. There are many reasons why Rastas may come to the view that the worship of Selassie is outmoded.
He was orthodox Christian, and many Rastas have come to reject Christianity. He was a king, and Rasta for many addresses the upliftment of the poor people of the earth, and thus reverence for him may seem to some contradictory. Some Rastas see the symbol of Selassie as emblematic of the 'I and I' idea, which is that man/woman, and God are of one identity, and if this one man can be seen as God, so all can be seen so.
Looking at Rastafari inspires ones to question the ultimate purpose of all religious thought. Some religions teach that the fleshly world is depraved, fallen, and illusory, and that true unity and reconciliation can only come after death, or at the end of history, when God returns to intervene. In many ways, Christianity teaches this, and though it may draw strongly on Judeo-Christian images and conceptions. Rasta has always absolutely rejected this idea. Rastafari looks to reconciliation and unity and the rule of justice right here on earth, and in this time.
Rastas are for the most part not revolutionary in the activist sense, but rather view revolution as a process that first takes place within, a turning over of conceptions that people, particularly Blacks, hold that oppress them, ideas, of their inferiority and lack of personal power to move to transform the outer world according to spiritual principles of love, unity, and right conduct.
It seems that through Rasta, many have been inspired to look beyond religions to the underlying natural principles that govern all human movement from birth to death and beyond. Perhaps in this time of crisis in human history the true purpose of religion is revealed. Maybe the purpose of religion is to take humans beyond religion. to a common recognition of the one Divine Energy, which moves and informs everything and everyone, from which we have life and love and the power to create a world more and more of us are convinced is our birthright.
In the African worldview, the ancestral worldview of all humans, everything is marvelously alive. The entire earth is a sacred place, of one essence, to which all refers and will in time return. This is the One Love and One Inity of the Rasta. It is the same expression.
I think now we can return to question of what is powerful and abiding about Rastafari as a movement. There are things upon which I believe all Rasta can agree.
There are many sects and denominations of Rasta, but most Rasta do not affiliate with any of them. I think I have shown some of the widely-diverse worldviews that exist in what is still able to be called 'Rasta.' One thing that is unique and powerful about Rasta is in part this very diversity, and the way Rasta resists attempts to congeal into just another religion, with a single set of doctrines and rules.
I believe that what unites all Rasta is a common concern for justice in this world, and the importance of personal conduct in bringing that justice about.
Rastafari presents a unique vision of global transformation through personal spiritual transformation. Rastas speak of livity, which is defined as personal lifestyles and personal habits that reflect the sort of world they believe is possible for all.
Most Rastas reject the idea that Rasta is religion. Instead they say it is a way of life, a livity. This again reflects an African worldview, which is in fact our common indigenous worldview, as we all came from there. There is no division between spirit and flesh, and the whole world is sacred.
Rastas also have a common understanding of the enemy, which they call Babylon. Babylon is conceived as the global systems of racism and oppression,
"A vampire....sucking the blood of the sufferers...building church and university...deceiving the people continually." --Marley
And as Bob Marley sings in "Babylon System", truth is the ultimate weapon. "Tell the children the truth"...the truth of history, the truth of the results of history on bloody display all around us, and the truth of our purpose here on this earth.
I remember feeling so relieved when I first encountered Rasta, because here at last were people unafraid to call wickedness wickedness.
All Rastas embrace the unitarian values of Rasta: One Love, Unity, and moral conduct.. They embrace a vision of a just world, a peaceful world, and freedom for all without regard to race, culture, or economics. They see that the unity of humankind will come as people embrace spiritual values and see that our common purpose here is to live harmoniously, joyfully, and well.
Rastafari is now a global movement that originated as a call for black unity out of the heart of the African diaspora. That nonblacks have taken up the call is not surprising, but it is not possible to have a "colourless Rasta movement." Any nonblack person who embraces Rastafari must embrace Africa, which is after all, the Motherland of all human beings, and indeed the Mother of all life. Burning Spear asks, "Have you ever seen an African woman nipples run dry/ Because she has no food?"
Well, we refuse to see her at our own peril, for the condition of our Mother speaks to the health of the whole world. That is what Rastas know, what they say, what they sing. If she run dry, then how will we be fed?
So, have I answered the question I began with? How, out of one of the worst ghettos in the world, does there arise such joy? For myself, yes I have. I see that the joy comes because "we know we're going and we know where we from."Through the knowledge of history we find that we are in fact, One.
And with that knowledge humans can call upon all the powers of creation to build a world that reflects that One, One Love.
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