Tuesday, November 3, 2009


According to Weber sects and churches are oriented toward (a) distinctive types of religious intensity or experience and (b) competing “organizational expressions” and membership standards against an existing religious tradition, new religious movements begin by recruiting from those seeking a higher truth, a more intense experience. They are unfulfilled, uninspired by tradition and so are willing to risk joining/exploring something new. SECT: A voluntary association of those who have been called, chosen, enlightened, inspired, who are thus charismatically qualified – commonly follow exacting purity requirements, engage in intensive spiritual activity, zealous commitment to the faith – “true believers.” The early Christian sect began with a charismatic leader and his followers who deviated from what was acceptable to the larger society. He challenged the authorities, e.g. attacking the money lenders in the temple and the fiscal power of priests (sacrificial offerings a revenue source.) He was seen as the fulfillment of prophesies – riding into Jerusalem on an ass (prophecy in Jeremiah 9:9)

The modern Rastafari religion started when a disenfranchised group in Jamaica, deviated from what was acceptable in that society. Following a charismatic leader who encouraged them to look to Africa where a king would be crowned during a time of colonization by Europeans who had taught that Africa was the “dark continent” with no civilization. Marcus Mosiah Garvey is viewed as the prophet who foresaw the anointing of Ras Tafari who was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia on November 2, 1930. Rastafari began as a belief system rooted in the back to Africa movement and enslaved Africans’ struggle for freedom. Even before there was a name for this belief system, it existed among those freedom fighters who had been “rebelling” against the people who enslaved them. The Rastafari movement is a Pan-African movement. Africans understood that in spite of their separation from Africa and the many centuries attempt to nullify their connection to Africa by slave holders it was important to their spiritual and mental health to maintain that connection. In Rastafari Roots and Ideology, Barry Chevannes writes: “Repatriation is one of the cornerstones of Rastfari belief. The doctrine of repatriation is kindred to a lineage of ideas and forms of action four hundred years old.” Chevannes further explains: “They arose first in response to European slavery and then, following emancipation, in response to the system of social, cultural, and economic oppression on which modern Jamaica was built.”

Although there had been attempts to form an African centred religious movement in Jamaica as early as 1784 when George Liele founded the Ethiopian Baptist Church, the modern Rastafari movement did not emerge in its present state until the 1930s. Leonard E. Barrett wrote in The Rastafarians: “Long before Ethiopianism came to America, the term had been adopted in Jamaica by George Liele, the American Baptist slave preacher who founded the first Baptist church in the island in 1784 - which he named the Ethiopian Baptist Church.” According to Barrett, Liele’s Ethiopian Baptist Church was a combination of “the African religion of Jamaican slaves and developed outside of the Christian missions, exhibiting a pure native flavor and was the religious expression most suitable for the political and social aspirations of the slaves.” This is considered the genesis of the modern Rastafari movement. The disadvantaged descendants of formerly enslaved Africans saw in Ethiopia, the sole African country that had never been colonized by Europeans, an ancestral home to which they could look with pride. Marcus Garvey was the most important prophet of this new movement and Ras Tafari, crowned His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah, Elect of God became the God of Rastafari.

Rastafari consider Garvey a prophet because apart from prophesying the crowning of the Ethiopian emperor, his philosophy is fundamental to the movement since many of the early Rastas were Garveyites. Garvey has been compared to John the Baptist who prophesied Jesus’ coming to earth as the Messiah. Garvey is considered the father of modern Pan-Africanism. Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood describe Pan-Africanism in Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora Since 1787: "Our definition includes women and men of African descent whose lives and work have been concerned, in some way, with the social and political emancipation of African peoples and those of the African Diaspora." Garvey was a descendant of the Maroons; Africans who fled the plantations and slavery, lived in the hills of Jamaica and engaged in guerilla warfare with the British “red coats” soldiers and the colonial slave holding government. He was born on August 17, 1887 in St Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. He founded the United Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial) League (UNIA-ACL) in 1914, with a philosophy of “Africa for Africans, at home and abroad.” With the motto; One God, one aim, one destiny Garvey encouraged his followers to among other things, worship a God that was in their image instead of a white god. In 1918 Garvey launched a newspaper, The Negro World, to spread his message to his followers who were scattered across the globe. He travelled the world spreading his message of Pan-Africanism, frequently speaking at regional conferences of the UNIA. In September 1937, after the regional conference held in Toronto from August 21 to 31, Garvey opened the School of African Philosophy in Toronto to train Africans for world leadership in the UNIA.

Garveyites and Rastafari were Africans who were considered lower class in Jamaica. Garvey left Jamaica and took his message to Africans in Europe, Central, North and South America. The early members of Rastafari were routinely harassed by the white colonial powers and those Jamaicans who ascribed to a Europeanized middle class status. Rastafari did not subscribe to what was considered respectable in Jamaica. They were not Christian and even though Rastafari used the bible, they interpreted the messages with Africa and Africans at the centre of the stories. The Rastafari believe that the Ethiopian emperor is a direct descendant of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon and from the same ancestry as Jesus. Rastafari also believed that they should separate themselves from those who were not believers. Their quest was to avoid Babylon (the state and what they view as its corruption) and return to Zion (Africa.)

Garvey’s philosophy which is a very important part of Rastafari belief has been immortalized in the lyrics of songs sung by Robert Nesta Marley who is considered one of the high priests of Rastafari. The teachings of Rastafari gained international notice with the popularity of reggae sung by artists such as Marley, Peter Tosh and Burning Spear. The music of these Rastafari artists became so popular that many people who admired their music took to wearing their hair locked like the Rastafari even though they did not subscribe to the Rasta belief system. Some others were attracted to what they considered drug use since the Rastafari used marijuana as a sacred herb. The early Rastafari were willing to endure the discrimination that came with observing the lifestyle of their faith which included not eating meat or salt, allowing their hair to grow and lock and living in communes. When the modern Rastafari movement began to gain momentum in the 1930s, Jamaica was still a colony of Great Britain and the planter class was in power. Africans in Jamaica lived in abject poverty therefore the converts were those poor and exploited. Rastafari rejected the idea of heaven in the sky and believe that there is no afterlife, the promise land is Zion and Rastas living in Babylon strive to get to Zion. The lyrics of Marley’s Get up, stand up illustrates the Rastafari belief of heaven on earth and the philosophy of resistance.

Preacherman, don't tell me,
Heaven is under the earth.
I know you don't know
What life is really worth.
It's not all that glitters is gold;
'Half the story has never been told:
So now you see the light!
Stand up for your rights!

Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Don't give up the fight!

Most people think,
Great God will come from the sky,
Take away everything
Make everybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth:
Now you see the light,
Stand up for your rights.

We sick and tired of your ism-skism game -
Dying and going to heaven in Jesus' name.
We know when 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 you see the light stand up for your rights.

Rastafari is a religion of resistance and struggle. The historical resistance against slavery has been replaced by resistance against all oppression, poverty, exploitation, racism and all the other “isms.” It has maintained only a modest social presence because there has not been a movement to routinize the beliefs of the religion. It remains mostly a Pan-African religion worshipping an African God, with the adherents being responsible for their own participation without a structured priesthood or hierarchy of leadership.

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