Minister of Science and Chief Protector of the Faith

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Lion of Judah

Jimmy Cliff "The Harder They Come"
Bob Marley "Get Up, Stand Up"
Haile Selassie I speaks!
Haile Selassie Speech, 1969
Marcus Garvey Speech, July 1921
Documental Rastafari
Haile Selassie Video in English
Marcus Mosiah Garvey
Haile Selassie I
Minibio de Bob Marley part 1 [ 2 ]
Holy Piby, Los Dreadlock y La Ganjah
Visita de Haile Selassie I a Jamaica
La Orden Nyahbinghi
Que es ser un Rastafari
Love and Unity y la Dieta Ital
Significado de Zion y Babylon
La Orden Twelve Tribes of Israel
La Orden Boboshanti
Visita de Selassie a Roosevelt
Apelacion en La Liga de Naciones

I would have no idea who Haile Selassie was if it was not for my brother. When I was in high school, my brother would play Bob Marley records (and Grateful Dead records) ad infinitum, and would spout Rastarian phrases and say that he believed in the religion of Rastafarianism. When I would ask him about the movement, he would utter the most ridiculous bilge, and I knew he was just making stuff up off the top of his head.

It was my sworn duty as a teenager to prove my brother wrong on any subject that I could, so I set out to learn everything I could about Rastafarianism. I went to the school library, but they just showed me tomes on Marcus Garvey. (Remember, I was still in high school. This took place at the dawn of time, before Al Gore invented the internet.) The librarian suggested that I contact a local seminary, and I later called them on the phone.

I can't remember who I spoke to, but the gentleman went out of his way to get me the information. He photocopied and mailed about 40 pages of information from religious digests that were extremely helpful.

Armed with my newfound knowledge, I was able to successfully tell my brother that he didn't know what he was talking about. (Ha! So there!) To understand the material, I unfortunately had to go look up some ***boring history related stuff*** about Ethiopia. (In the end, I actually found it very interesting.)

My brother has since turned to Buddhism, a subject that he is equally unfamiliar with. Personal mythology is subjective I guess, more personal for some than others.

To understand Rastafarianism, you have to understand the former Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie. Some would say that he was immensely popular both at home and abroad, others would call him a despot. No matter what, he was a huge figure in history. Here is the short version:

Haile Selassie was the emperor of Ethiopia, considered by some to be the last sovereign "king" on Earth. He became the Regent and de facto ruler of the Ethiopian Empire in 1916, and the Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. After Ethiopia was invaded by Italy in 1935, Haile Selassie lost power and was in exile from 1936 to 1941. He regaining his crown after the Italian army was expelled by the Allied forces. His reign came to an end in 1974, when a pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist military junta deposed him, and established a one-party communist state.

Today Haile Selassie is worshipped as the living God incarnate among followers of the Rastafari movement, which emerged in Jamaica during the 1930s under the influence of Marcus Garvey's "Pan Africanism" movement. [ 1 ] Haile Selassie did not start this movement, nor did the movement start in Ethiopia. It started in the West Indies.

When Haile Selassie visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966, somewhere around one hundred thousand Rastafari from all over Jamaica descended on the Kingston Airport, having heard that Haile Selassie was coming to visit them. As I read in one account, pretty much all of Jamaica came to a grinding halt for three days, as the majority of the population left to see the Emperor. "This day, widely held by scholars to be a major turning point for the movement, is still commemorated by Rastafarians as Grounation Day, the anniversary of which is celebrated as the second holiest holiday after November 2, the Emperor's Coronation Day."

Because of his official rank, Haile Selassie was also the titular head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (see also Coptic) and, until his visit to Jamaica in 1966, "he had never confirmed nor denied that he was divine. During his visit he specifically declined to refute the Rastafari belief that he was God. [...] In 1948, Haile Selassie donated a piece of land at Shashamane, 250 km south of Addis Ababa, for the use of Blacks from the West Indies. Numerous Rastafari families settled there and there is a community there to this day." [ 1 ]

The overall dogma of Rastafarianism is very broad and loose, and there is not a lot of agreement among its followers. Rastafarian beliefs are less formulaic, and are based on a widely varying set of key themes. For example, different factions of the Rastafarian movement claim to be followers of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, Protestant Christianity, or Judaism. Different factions are called Mansions:

Mansions of Rastafari are branches of the Rastafari movement. Mansions include the Bobo Ashanti, the Nyabinghi, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and others. The term is taken from the Biblical verse in John 14:2, "In my Father's house are many mansions." [ 2 ]

Rastafarians identity themselves with the ancient Israelites. they draw on a historical parallel with the Israelites slavery in Egypt. Pretty much the whole world is seen as "Babylon" - "referring to human government and institutions that are seen as in rebellion against the rule of JAH (Zion), beginning with the Tower of Babel." [ 3 ]

It could be said that Rastafarianism is a reaction to historic injustices, and all of the injustices of the past and present are lumped together into one evil that Rastafarians have labled "Babylon". Pretty much everywhere and everything that is not Rastafarian, Haile Selassie or Ethiopia is considerd to be "Babylon". Even technology (and thus the internet) is considered "Babylon".

Babylon was a city of ancient Mesopotamia, or in present day Iraq, south of Baghdad. The Tower of Babel is featured in the Book of Genesis. According to the biblical account, Babylon was the first city built after the great flood. Babylon built an enormous tower so large that it would have "its top in the heavens." However, according to the story the Tower of Babel was built for selfish reasons and was dedicated to a false religion.

God got mad and spread the population to the four corners of the Earth. Before God got mad, the people of Babylon spoke one language, and after he got mad he scattered everybody across the globe and made them speak different languages. "Babylon" and "Babel" are synonymous with confusion and misunderstanding. (Later accounts state that God also knocked down the Tower of Babel with a great wind.)

Although some of the language of Rastafarianism can be construed as "anti-white", it should not be dismissed as a "racist" religion. The group technically welcomes members from all races, and is by definition against racism and injustice.

Despite much of the pro-Christian information that I read about the subject of Rastafarianism on the internet now, most of the stuff that I read years ago was anti-Christian. For example, the lyrics of the Jimmy Cliff song, "The Bigger They Come The Harder They Fall" [ 4 ] refers directly to a belief that Christianity is a form of false propaganda used to opress it's followers by promising something better in the future in return for servitude now:

Well they tell me
There's a pie in the sky
Waiting for me when I die

[...] Well the oppressors are trying
To get me down, trying to drive me
Under the ground, and they think
That they have got their battle won
I say: "forgive 'em Lord
They no not what they've done"

[...] But I'd rather be a free man in my grave
Oh, than living like a puppet or a slave

A similar belief is expressed in the Bob Marley and Peter Tosh song, "Get Up, Stand Up":

[...] "Most people think,
Great God will come from the sky,
Take away everything and make everybody feel high."

[...] We're sick and tired of your ism and schism game
Die and go to heaven in Jesus' name, Lord
We know and we understand
Almighty God is a living man
You can fool some people sometimes
But you can't fool all the people all the time
So now we see the light
We gonna stand up for our right

The phrase "Almighty God is a living man" is of course a reference to the belief that Haile Selassie is the messiah, the living God incarnate, the physical and spiritual fulfillment of biblical prophesy.

Commonly held Christian beliefs state that Jesus is the Messiah, but biblical prophesy states that the Messiah would be an actual king of Israel. It actually makes a certain degree of sense; if Ethiopia is considered a modern Israel (with royal lineage purportedly going back to King Solomon, remember), and Haile Selassie was a king of Ethiopia, he actually fits the prophesy (in a certain sense) better than Jesus.

Rastafarian lore is a story of disenfranchisement, and all Rastafarians agree that there will be some form of repatriation in the end. "Early Rastafarians, following Garvey, maintained that the repatriation would be literal and physical, to Africa in general or Ethiopia in particular. Younger and newer Rastafarians, however, understand the 'return' in symbolic terms". [ 5 ]

The growing of dreadlocks is based on scripture: "he shall be holy, [and] shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow." [ Num. 6:5-6 ] Their appearence is supposed to imitate the mane of a lion, to cause "dread" in their enemies (the residents of Babylon), and serve as a "'psychic antenna' which collects and distributes mental energy: 'the shaking of locks is thought to unleash spiritual energy that will eventually bring about the destruction of Babylon.'" [ 5 ] (OK, that's just kind of weird...)

Although much of what Rastafarians preach may sound strange or foreign to an American, they are probably not any nuttier than other religions. Ganja serves as sort of an introverted expression of the Eucharist to Rastafarians. They have dietary restrictions like other religions. They treat women as less than equal like other religions. Like other religions, they think that they are the enlightened and everyone else is wrong. this is expressed in their own patois: They don't 'believe' things, they 'KNOW' them. [ 6 ] They have all of the familiar features, except perhaps that they not only preach non-violence, but seem to actually practice non-violence. This might change, Rastafarianism is still young in comparison to the more violent practitioners of non-violence.

One parallel I might draw is that the Rastafarian religion really has little to do with the actual agenda of Haile Selassie during much of his reign. Mountains of the Rastafarian information about Haile Selassie and his real or imagined significance in the world has been created after the fact, so much so that anything that the man actually did or said has sort of paled in comparison to this newly created mythology. In a similar way, the philosophy of Jesus might be said to have been lost in all of the mumbo jumbo of modern Christianity.

Anyway, this was supposed to be mostly about Haile Selassie, and so here is a longer version of his tale that I culled from a much longer Wikipedia article. This is about a fourth as long as the Wikipedia article, and omits many details:

This is the speech that Haile Selassie gave to the League of Nations, pleading for assistance for Ethiopia against the invading Italians. This is actually a remarkable speech, and something of a forgetten page in history. (By the way, the United States was not a member of the League of Nations. Republicans dominated The United States Senate at the time. They voted against the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, thus preventing American participation in the League.)

The Rastafarian vocabulary gives some insight into their beliefs:

Unfortunately, I have completely left out Marcus Garvey and the "Pan Africanism" movement. Maybe in another post...


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At Thu Apr 03, 08:36:00 AM, Blogger Jess Wundrun said...

Today in Jamaica you can meet men with dreadlocks who talk a good game and who try to enchant you with talk about rastafarianism.

If they do that while drinking a Red Stripe beer you know they are a fraud. The dietary restrictions are actually pretty important to the religion (movement seems more apt, somehow) Rastafarians won't eat any processed food. They are alot like Americans who swear to 'eat local' and their reasons are political, spiritual and healthful. Contrary to popular belief, smoking pot is not a tenant of the faith, like holy communion or something. Some rastafari do, some don't. Anthony Bourdain visited a pretty genuine rasta on his "No Reservations" show from Kingston. If you get a chance to see it, I recommend it just for that segment.

As an aside, there are many Jamaican men who pretend to be rastafarians because there's a whole industry surrounding white women who go to Jamaica for a little luvin'. They take in a man for a week. He gets to stay in her hotel room, eat meals with her and in exchange he'll be her boyfriend for the week. The name for these guys is 'rastitute'.

One thing that you have left out of your post is the importance of the socialist revolution in Jamaica that came to a head in the seventies. The lyrics you cited are both about religion and about lingering British colonial oppression. Remember that the Anglican Church and the British are nearly synonymous in colonial society. Generations of white Jamaicans fled the island after Michael Manley was elected in 1974.

I found a dissertation online that you might be interested in. I read only the intro, so I could be wrong:

I have a few friends who are rastafari. The most striking thing about them is that they don't proselytize, don't look like wild back country folk, and don't really fit the stereotype at all.

I wonder what religion your brother will choose next? I put my money on Scientology. ;)

At Thu Apr 03, 08:54:00 AM, Blogger mwb said...

Focusing on some of the neglected history of the time involving Selassie and Ethiopia - in terms of the tragedy of Eritrea check out I Didn't Do It for You : How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation by Michela Wrong the hardcover is on sale at Amazon for only $6.99.

I read it a couple of years ago and found it an incredibly interesting discussion of a neglected piece (in the US at least) of history.

At Thu Apr 03, 09:35:00 AM, Blogger Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At Thu Apr 03, 09:35:00 AM, Blogger Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Wow, that was an info packed post and one hell of a comment by our lovely Jess. I read a book recently about Africa that maintained Selassie was embarrassed that he was worshipped as a diety.

At Thu Apr 03, 11:16:00 AM, Blogger Übermilf said...

That was waaaay to long for someone as lazy as me to read.

Do you have a Cliff's Notes version? Perhaps a Jimmy Cliff's Notes?

At Thu Apr 03, 01:48:00 PM, Blogger CDP said...

Outstanding post, Dr. Z. (tee hee to Ubermilf's comment. I wish I'd thought of that. I'm a little slow on the uptake).

At Thu Apr 03, 04:46:00 PM, Blogger Mark said...

Dr. Z, better than TV! Internets = Babylon. Makes good sense. I also like Jess W's comment. Good work, but maybe for your greatest hits album, a Jimmy Cliffnotes version.

At Thu Apr 03, 06:06:00 PM, Blogger Liberality said...

so now when I sing along with Bob Marley I'll know what the f I'm singing about...I sort of had a clue but not this detailed for sure.

At Fri Apr 04, 09:30:00 AM, Blogger Dr. Zaius said...

Jess Wundrun: According to a couple of the articles I read, not all Rastafarians floow the dietary restrictions. Pork is a major no-no,though. I will have to look up Anthony Bourdain's Rasta "No Reservations" show. I did find this odd documentary ("Documental Rastafari") on YouTube, but the poster did not give any indication to the order that the clips come in, but some of the stuff is interenting.

I am a bit suspect of your vast knowledge of 'Rastitutes' and 'men with dreadlocks who talk a good game'. Are you now or have you ever been under the wicked love spell of a Rasta-Richard Gere lothario? Or perhaps you are really a Jamaican industrial 'Rastitute' on the internets!

I left out British colonial oppression in the post because it was running so long already. I left it to phrases like "Rastafarianism is a reaction to historic injustices" and such. I kind of figured that it was a was a 'given' the conditions were poor in Jamaica.

Eek! That article is enormous! I'll save the link for later. Are there any Rastafarians in Wisconsin?

MWB: "How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation" is a perfect title for what happened to Ethiopia. Italy dropped mustard gas on Ethipoian civilians using war surplus airplanes from WWI, and the world did nothing. Worse, they sanctioned it. The world did have rules then, but they only applied to white people.

Dr. Monkerstein: I have read acconts that say he embraced it also. That is one of the things about Haile Selassie, there is much written about him, but there is little concensus. He is like a mythical figure.

Übermilf: Ha! Best joke of the day!

CDP: Thanks, Aunt Dahlia! (Übermilf did have a great joke!)

Mark: "Internets = Babylon" does make one question the authenticity of any Rastafarian website...

Liberality: It make one think of all of the teenage Christian fans sing along, not realizing that they are denouncing Christ! You would cringe at what my brother thinks about Buddhism.

At Sat Apr 05, 01:34:00 PM, OpenID duros62 said...

When i was a kid I asked my dad what it was that made Selassie a god.

He told me one of the reasons was that at the time there was s drought going on in Jamaica, and when Selassie came to visit, it rained for 2 weeks. And it didn't stop until he left the country.
Always seemed like a stretch to make someone a deity just because his vacation got ruined. :-)

At Sun Apr 06, 08:01:00 AM, Blogger Dr. Zaius said...

Jeepers! I have participated in ruined vacations... Does that mean that I have achieved godhood?? ;o)

At Mon Apr 07, 02:34:00 PM, OpenID duros62 said...

You may already be omnipotent!

At Tue Apr 08, 01:04:00 AM, OpenID theardentthread said...

Thanks Dr. Z and other for the education! I've known a few Rastafarians in my time, and all were very different from each other. Some really liked the ganja, some did not. Some had the massive dreads, some did not. Etc ad infinitum. What I did not know was the history, so thank you for providing some pieces of it.

At Tue Apr 08, 03:28:00 PM, Blogger Dr. Zaius said...

Like I said, I would have no idea who Haile Selassie was if it was not for my brother. It was a case of learning the right subject for the wrong reason! Thanks, Kimono Momo.


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