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Rastafari Religion. An Overview of Rasta CultureRastafari developed amongst very poor people, who felt society had nothing to offer them except more suffering. Rastas see themselves as conforming to a vision of how Africans should live, reclaiming what they see as a culture stolen from them when they were brought on slave ships to Jamaica, birthplace of the movement.
AfrocentrismSocially, Rastafari is a response to racist negation of black people as it was experienced in Jamaica, where in the 1930s, black people were at the bottom of the social order, while white people and their (predominantly Christian) religion were at the top. Marcus Garvey's encouragement of black people to take pride in themselves and their heritage inspired the Rastas to embrace all things African. They teach that they were brainwashed while in captivity to negate all things black and African. They turned the racists' image of them as primitive and straight out of the jungle into a defiant embrace of these concepts as a part of the African culture they see as having been stolen from them when they were taken from Africa on the slave ships. To be close to nature and to the African savannah and its lions, in spirit if not in the flesh, is central to their idea of African culture.
Living close to and as a part of nature is seen as African. This African approach to "naturality" is seen in the dreadlocks, ganja (marijuana), ital food, and in all aspects of Rasta life. They disdain the modern approach (or, as they see it, non-approach) to life for being unnatural and excessively objective and rejecting subjectivity. Rastas say that scientists try to discover how the world is by looking from the outside in, whereas the Rasta approach is to see life from the inside, looking out. The individual is given tremendous importance in Rastafari, and every Rasta has to figure out the truth for himself or herself.
Another important Afrocentric identification is with the colors red, gold, and green, from the Ethiopian flag. They are a symbol of the Rastafari movement, and of the loyalty Rastas feel towards Haile Selassie, Ethiopia, and Africa rather than for any other modern state where they happen to live. These colors are frequently seen on clothing and other decorations. Red stands for the blood of martyrs, green stands for the vegetation of Africa, while gold stands for the wealth and prosperity Africa has to offer. (On the other hand, some Ethiopian scholars state that the colours originate from an old saying that the Virgin Mary's belt is the rainbow, and that the Red, Gold, and Green are a symbol of this.)
Many Rastafari attempt to learn Amharic, which they consider to be the original language, because this is the language Haile Selassie I spoke, and in order to identify themselves as Ethiopian—though in practice, most Rastas continue to speak either English or their native languages. There are reggae songs written in Amharic.
Haile Selassie and the BibleOne belief that unites many Rastafari is that Ras (an Amharic title of nobility corresponding to Duke; also having the meaning "Head") Tafari Makonnen, who was crowned Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia on November 2nd, 1930, is the living God incarnate, called Jah, who is the black Messiah who will lead the world's peoples of African origin into a promised land of full emancipation and divine justice, although some mansions do not take this literally. This is partly because of his titles King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. These titles match those of the Messiah mentioned in Revelation. However, according to Ethiopian tradition, these titles were accorded to all Solomonic emperors beginning in 980 BC — well before Revelation was written around 97 AD. Haile Selassie was, according to some traditions, the 225th in an unbroken line of Ethiopian monarchs descended from the Biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Psalm 87:4-6 is also interpreted as predicting the coronation of Haile Selassie I.
In the 10th century BC, The Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia was founded by Menelik I, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who had visited Solomon in Israel. 1 Kings 10:13 claims "And king Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants." On the basis of the Kebra Negast, Rastas interpret this as meaning she conceived his child, and from this, they concluded that the black people are the true children of Israel, or Jews. Beta Israel black Jews have lived in Ethiopia for centuries, disconnected from the rest of Judaism; their existence gave some credence and impetus to early Rastafarians, validating their belief that Ethiopia was Zion.
Some Rastafari choose to classify their religion as Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, Protestant Christianity, or Judaism. Of those, the ties to the Ethiopian Church are the most widespread, although this is controversial to many Ethiopian clergy. Rastafari believe that standard translations of the Bible incorporate changes created by the racist white power structure. Some also revere the Ethiopian national epic, the Kebra Negast, but many of these Rastas would classify themselves as Ethiopian Orthodox in religion and Rastafarian in ideology. Most Rastafarians pay little attention to the Kebra Negast and do not consider it anywhere near the sacrality of the bible.
For Rastafari, Selassie I remains their god and their king. They see Selassie as being worthy of worship, and as having stood with great pomp and dignity in front of the world's press and in front of representatives of many of the world's powerful nations. From the beginning the Rastas decided to treat themselves in effect as free citizens of Ethiopia, loyal to its leader and devoted to its flag.
Most Rastafari believe that Selassie is in some way a reincarnation of Jesus and that the Rastafari are the true Israelites.
Rastas call Selassie Jah, or Jah Rastafari, and believe there is great power in these names. They call themselves Rastafari (pronounced Rasta-FAR-I) to express the personal relationship each Rasta has with Selassie I. Rastas like to use the ordinal with the name Haile Selassie I, with the dynastic Roman numeral one signifying "the First" deliberately pronounced as the letter I - again as a means of expressing a personal relationship with God. They also like to call him H.I.M. (pronounced him), for His Imperial Majesty.
When Haile Selassie I died in 1975, his death was not accepted by some Rastafarians who could not accept that God incarnate could die. Many believe that it was a scam and that he will be back to liberate his followers. A few Rastas today consider this a partial fulfillment of prophecy found in the apocalyptic 2 Esdras 7:28.
Rastafari is a strongly syncretic Abrahamic religion that draws extensively from the Bible. They particularly like the New Testament Book of Revelation, as this (5:5) is where they find the prophecies about the divinity of Haile Selassie. Rastas believe that they, and the rest of the black race, are descendants of the ancient twelve tribes of Israel, cast into captivity outside Africa as a result of the slave trade.
Some believe that only half of the Bible has been written, and that the other half, stolen from them along with their culture, is written in a man's heart. This concept also embraced the idea that even the illiterate can be Rastas by reading God's Word in their hearts. Rastas also see the lost half of the bible, and the whole of their lost culture to be found in the Ark of the Covenant, a repository of African wisdom.
Rastafari are criticized, particularly by Christian groups, for taking biblical quotes out of context, for picking and choosing what they want from the Bible, and for bringing elements into Rastafari that do not appear in the Bible. They are also criticized for using the English language (and particularly the King James version) of the Bible, as many have no interest in Hebrew or Greek scholarship. However, in recent years a greater interest in the Amharic Orthodox version, authorized by Haile Selassie I in the 1950s, has arisen among Rastas. Selassie himself wrote in the preface to this version that "unless [one] accepts with clear conscience the Bible and its great Message, he cannot hope for salvation." (Words of Ras Tafari).
Repatriation and RaceThe Royal Parchment Scroll of Black SupremacyThe Rasta dream is that Haile Selassie will call the day of judgment, when the righteous shall return home to Mount Zion, identified with Africa, to live forever in peace, love, and harmony. In the meantime the Rastas call to be repatriated to Africa. Repatriation, the desire to return to Africa after 400 years of slavery, is central to Rastafari doctrine. The first Rastas, stuck on a tiny Caribbean island, dreamed of the possibilities of Africa.
Many early Rastas for a time believed in black supremacy. Widespread advocacy of this doctrine was shortlived, however; at least partly because of Selassie's explicit condemnation of racism in a speech before the United Nations. Most Rastas now espouse a belief that racial animosities must be set aside, with world peace and harmony being common themes. One of the three major modern sects, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, has specifically condemned all types of racism, and declared that the teachings of the Bible are the route to spiritual liberation for people of any racial or ethnic background.
Some early elements of Rastafari were closely related to indigenous religions of the Caribbean and Africa, and to the Maroons, though these syncretic elements were largely purged by the Nyahbinghi warriors - dreadlocked Rastas who fought the corrupting power of some leaders who sought to add them to the Rastafari doctrines.
Middle-class people, white people, Asians, and Native Americans also comprise minorities within the movement.
Church and The Holy TrinityTo further confuse the issue of classifying Rasta practices, one type of religious gathering (grounation) is similar in many ways to Jewish services, and may have descended from African-American slaves who converted to Judaism — some Jews in the southern USA owned slaves — and escaped to Jamaica. Rastas believe that their own body is the true church or temple of God, and so see no need to make temples or churches out of physical buildings.
Rastas believe that Haile Selassie is both God the Father and God the Son of the holy Trinity, while it is themselves, and potentially all human beings, who embody the Holy Spirit. Thus, the human being is a church that contains the Holy Ghost. Rastas see Haile Selassie as the head, and themselves as the body, as another way of expressing this doctrine. Some see Melchizedek in addition to Jesus as having been former incarnations of Haile Selassie. The reason Rastas have the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is because Haile Selassie is Power of the Trinity in Ethiopic.
Physical ImmortalityRastas are physical immortalists who believe the chosen few will continue to live forever in their current bodies. This idea of everliving (rather than everlasting) life is very strong and important.
A good expression of this doctrine is in Lincoln Thompson's song Thanksgiving. After asking "What's destroying life?" he says, "Tell I if you know." Paraphrasing the Bible, he continues, "There are too many dead bodies lying around me...in a true reality, down in the grave there is no life. In silence there you'll be, with no-one to hear nor see, and no matter what you saw, when you are dead you cannot praise Jah." Another may be seen in the lyrics to the 3rd World anthem, "96 Degrees in the Shade":
Way up in the sky,
Today I stand here a victim -
The truth is I'll never die...
Perhaps the most well known example of this is Bob Marley's refusal to write a will despite suffering from the final stages of an advanced metastasized cancer (and the resulting controversy surrounding the distribution of his estate after his death) on the grounds that writing a will would mean he was giving in to death and forgoing his chance at everliving life.
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