By MARLIN JESCHKE
Most Americans have seen dreadlocks, heard of reggae music and heard of cannabis (marijuana). These three are all connected in a Jamaican religious movement called Rastafari.
Jamaica was once a colony of Great Britain, which had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery itself in the British Empire in 1833. But despite abolition, ex-slaves in Jamaica continued to live under social conditions not much different from their earlier ones under slavery.
Historians usually credit Leonard Percival Howell with being the main founder of the Rasta movement. He started preaching around 1933, shortly after the 1930 coronation of Haile Selassie as Emperor of Ethiopia, an event Howell had witnessed. Before his coronation Selassie was called Ras Tafari Makonnen, hence the name of this Jamaican movement.
Howell claimed Haile Selassie was the Messiah returned to earth, and many Rastafarians simply called him God. Reports of the crowning of an African king, one of their own people, boosted the morale of Jamaican blacks, and soon many of them began to hope for an imminent repatriation to Ethiopia.
In his preaching, Howell fostered a hatred for the white colonial government and asserted the superiority of blacks, as a consequence of which he was constantly in trouble with the police and colonial authorities. He was arrested up to 50 times, and police repeatedly raided The Pinnacle, a settlement he had established for Rastas.
Haile Selassie himself welcomed some Jamaicans to settle in Ethiopia. In 1966 he visited Jamaica, though perhaps only partly taken in by the worship of its Rastas.
It was iffy weather when Selassie’s plane approached the Kingston airport, but one Rasta predicted the sun would come out when “God” appeared —and it did!
One hundred thousand devotees mobbed the plane after it landed, preventing Selassie from coming out until again some Rasta leader informed the crowd they would have to fall back to allow Selassie to deplane.
Haile Selassie’s personal visit reinforced the faith of Jamaica’s Rastas, and many of them later believed he never died. Some Rastas took up the language of Ethiopia, Amharic. In fact, some reggae songs are written in Amharic.
With a few possible exceptions, Rastas do not use houses of worship. They do, however, have gatherings, and these are marked by the smoking of “ganja,” marijuana, which is practically a sacrament with them.
They justify this by citing biblical texts such as Genesis 1:29, where God says, “I have given you every herb-bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth.” Or Psalm:104:14, “He [God] causeth the grass to grow for cattle, and herb for the service of man.”
As for the dreadlocks, they invoke a biblical text such as Numbers 6:5, “… There shall no razor come upon his head…. He shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow,” even though this text refers to the Nazirite vow in ancient Israel.
As for diet, Rastas avoid shellfish and pork. Some, in fact, are vegetarian because meat is associated with the death of animals. Rastas have an eloquent table prayer which I heard when hosting a Rasta for lunch in Kingston in the early 1970s.
Also characteristic of Rastas is their use of “I” instead of “me,” and “I’n I” instead of “we” or “us.” They avoid the objective case because, they say, “I’n I” are subjects, not objects.
The Rasta movement is still around in Jamaica, and followers of this movement can also be found in the United States and Canada as well as in numerous countries of Africa.
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at Goshen College. He taught at the college for 33 years. In 1968-69, he received a fellowship in Asian Religions to study Islam and Buddhism, spending five months at the Center for the Study of Religions and Harvard Divinity School and then five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East, and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia) and Japan. He is also the author of several books.