My exodus from the Catholic Church was not one of those mythical “mutual” separations; the Church was hurt. I actually resulted to using the cliché explanation, “It’s not you, it’s me.” It was a difficult time for me; I was alone in the world, and faithless! On Sunday mornings, I often found myself wandering down the street to St. Patrick’s church just to see if I was missed. Eventually, I had to find the strength to move on; I didn’t have Catholicism but “god” was still in my corner. I was in search of a new faith, one which accepted me and my “god.” (My “god” was fun and he had a sense of humor.)
My investigation led me to many different religions, but I was never able to find the right one. (Religions are different from fish, there aren’t plenty in the sea!) I learned about Rastafari and almost joined, but eventual I couldn’t bring myself to become a believer.
I know what you’re thinking. “I know a few Rastas and they say Rastafarianism is a movement and not a religion!” That’s great; people say a lot of things, but I am applying anthropologist Anthony Wallace’s criteria for a religion.
The word Babylon is an extremely important term in the Rastafarian vocabulary. Babylon is not a place, and it doesn’t refer to the Ancient city conquered by Alexander the Great. (Nor does it refer to the Babylon club in the greatest movie of all-time Scarface!) In From Garvey To Marley, Noel Erskine writes,“Babylon represented the powers that were arranged against and sought to destroy poor people.” To the Rastas, Babylon includes the religions of the world, most notably, Christianity.
It is clear that the Rastafari movement is indeed a religion. The Rastas believe in an all-powerful “god,” and they also use the bible as the main scripture for the movement. Wallace’s anthropological definition of religion, clearly identifies Rastafari as a religion.
Wallace’s 13 Behaviors:
- Prayer – Addressing the Supernatural.
- Music – Dancing, singing, and playing instruments.
- Physiology Exercise – The physical manipulation of the psychological state.
- Exhortation – The existence of a middleman between people and supernatural beings.
- Reciting the Code – Mythology, morality and other aspects of the belief system.
- Simulation – Initiating things. Having power over objects, i.e. Voodoo dolls.
- Mana – Touching things. For example, the “holy” water in church.
- Taboo – Not touching things. Certain restrictions are followed.
- Feasts – Eating and drinking.
- Sacrifice – Offerings and fees.
- Congregation – Processions, meetings and congregation.
- Inspiration – Divine intervention.
- Symbolism – Manufacturing and use of sacred objects.
Anthony Wallace asserts, “It is the premise of every religion…that souls, supernatural beings, and supernatural forces exist.” Wallace considers his thirteen behaviors as the “substance of religion.” He acknowledges that his categories are not the only ones that can be used to define a religion. (Feel free to enlighten us with your own criteria!)
The word religion presents a problem for Rastas because it is associated with Babylon. Rastafarians view Christianity, the major religion in Jamaica, as counterproductive in the sense of dealing with the economic and social problems which plague the people. Rastas believe Christianity is designed by Babylon to keep the Blacks from improving their situation. Christianity teaches people to accept their position in life, in order to be rewarded in the after-life. Great concept, but Christianity cannot help to improve the lives of the oppressed people; their economic and social position will remain the same. The Rastas desired to establish a new way of thinking in hopes of improving the hardships they were faced with. (At this point I was so excited to become a Rasta!)
The Rastas began to read the bible and interpret it for themselves. The most problematic aspect of Christianity for Rastas is the role of the priest. Rastas believe in the concept of I-and-I, which is a personal relationship with “god” that every Rastafarian controls. Wallace states, “In every religious system, there are occasions on which one person addresses another as a representative of divinity.” Wallace refers to this person as the “exhorter.” Rastafarians do not have an exhorter who serves as a mediator between the individual and “god.” The Rastas believe in the constant connection between an individual and “god,” therefore the exhorter isn’t necessary.
The elders are usually consulted when a newcomer has trouble understanding the bible or some of the Rastafari beliefs, but the elder is not interpreting the bible for the person; he is merely being an assistant on their path to uncovering “god’s” word. Most importantly, the person seeking help is not obligated to agree with the interpretation of the elder. People can connect with “god” however they see fit.
Ennis Edmonds, who wrote Caribbean Religious History, views the Rastafari religion as “Reticulate,” but the fact that there is no leader or hierarchical structure doesn’t mean the movement is disjointed. Edmonds believes there is a unifying element to the religion based on “a fairly uniform system of beliefs.” There are different informal organizational structures in the religion, according to Edmonds. (I found this lack of structure to be freeing. There was no mandatory church on Sundays. Don’t Catholics know that we party on Saturdays?)
“Own Built,” describes Rastas who do not belong to any group. These Rastafarians follow the same beliefs, but practice on an individual level. The next level is called “houses” and “yards,” which are small groups led by an elder. The elder’s position is not to teach others what the bible says, but to inspire others to create their own understanding of the text and the fundamentals of the religion. The larger groups referred to as “mansions” have two separate categories: “churchical” ”statical.” The churchical emphasizes the religious aspect of the Rastafari movement, while the statical focuses on political and social problems. (I can already tell. Many of you are considering a conversion!)
Rastafarian rituals are called “grounding.” Grounding is defined by Edmonds as “informal instruction in Rasta precepts and ideology; the ritual process [reasoning] by which circles of like minded brethren are formed and maintained.” The gatherings in which grounding takes place are called “Nyabinghi I-ssembly” or “groundation.” The Nyabinghi contains some different aspects which fit into Wallace’s criteria for religion. Wallace’s behavior for touching things is called “Mana.” The Rastas believe in the concept of “ital levity,” which is a commitment to using things in their natural organic state. Rastafarians view drugs, alcohol, and processed foods as Babylon’s way of destroying the minds of black people. Rastas do use marijuana, called “Ganja,” and do not consider it a drug. Ganja is a natural herb and helps the Rastas to free their minds in order to clearly understand the oppressive nature of Babylon. (No, I did not consider marijuana use as a reason for my conversion to Rastafarianism. I listened to Nancy Reagan and said no to drugs! I do not smoke, except for an occasional cigar!)
Wallace uses not touching things, which he calls “Taboo,” as another criterion for identifying a religion. The Rastas do not permit the use of drugs or alcohol, and they do not eat processed foods. They look at unnatural things as taboos. Ganja is always smoked during the Nyabinghi because, according to Edmonds, Rastas say it “dispels gloom and fear, induces visions, and heightens the feelings, creating a sensation of fellow love and peace.” (Interesting! Maybe I’ll give this marijuana thing a try!)
Feasts, is another of Wallace’s behaviors which applies to the Rastafari Religion. The Nyabinghi always includes a meal that is shared by all the Rastas who participate in the ritual. The Nyabinghi is held during Rastafari holy days. One of the holiest days is April 21, which celebrates Ethiopian king Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1968. (More on Selassie later!) Congregation is another behavior of Wallace’s which can be associated with Rastafari. The Nyabinghi, which are large gatherings, bring many people together so they can “reason.” The Rastas also have small reasoning sessions which can consist of only two people. The reasoning sessions fit in with Wallace’s behavior of Congregation, because the Rastas are discussing the religion.
Physiological Exercise is yet another of Wallace’s behaviors which fits in with the Rastafarian Religion. Wallace believes this behavior is done to alter the mind state. The use of ganja fits in with Physiological Exercise. Marijuana does not bring the person closer to “god” because Rastas believe each person has a constant connection with “god.” This connection with “god” is what the Rastafari concept of I-and-I is all about. The Ganja does bring the person’s mind into a different state in which he or she can better understand the way Babylon works. There are individuals who are assigned the duty of supplying the ganja for reasoning. (Something tells me all this ganja talk is going to make a profitable day for the pot dealers who sell to the readers of this blog!)
The bible is a major influence on the Rastafarian Religion. Reciting the Code is arguably the behavior of Wallace’s which best fits in with Rastafari. Rastas have a great understanding of the bible and study the text often. The bible is the main book of the Christian tradition but most of the followers of Christ rely on the exhorter to interpret the bible for them. The Rastafari Reasoning sessions are based on the individual’s own interpretation of the bible and most Rastas can usually agree on what is written. Rastafarians will point out versus in the bible in order to justify the use of ganja. They are constantly talking to “god” and always aware of his presence, which fits in with Wallace’s behavior of “Prayer.” Wallace states that all religions involve prayer which usually consists of thanking the supernatural or asking for something.
Symbolism is another behavior which applies to the Rastafarian Religion. According to Erskine, Leonard Howell “was selling pictures of Haile Selassie as passports Ethiopia.” (The significance will be made clear further in the entry.) Howell was one of the founding members of Rastafari. Repatriation was one of Marcus Garvey’s biggest contributions to the movement. The original Rastas were Garveyites. Marcus Garvey wanted all Africans to return to the motherland, in order to undo the injustices of slavery. The term repatriation has changed over the years. Now Rastas say they will repatriate after they find justice for the oppression they suffered caused by Babylon; there is no longer a desire to move back to Africa. Repatriation also refers to a symbolic return to being Ethiopians and out from under the oppressive rule of Babylon.
The Curchical chants of the Nyabinghi is a CD recording of a grounding ceremony which was held on the occasion of United States President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Jamaica in 1982. The Rastas wanted to protest Reagan’s visit and held a Nyabinghi to do so. Reagan was regarded as the face of Babylon, because he led the most powerful and oppressive country in the world. The Nyabinghi was held for seven days in the mountains away from where Reagan was staying. The Rastas do not feel the need to hold a protest at the site of the event they are objecting. Rastafarians believe the vibrations and spirituality of the music will travel and have an effect on the undesired event. (What’s not to love. I am considering leaving atheism and becoming a Rasta!)
The Rastafari religion does not fit into every one of Anthony Wallace’s thirteen behaviors, but it does meet a majority of the criteria. The Rastafarian movement also fits in with Wallace’s definition for cult institutions. Rastafarians are hesitant to use the term religion because of its association with Babylon. Regardless of the contradiction in meaning, Rastas have created a religion which does not aim to oppress its people, but Rastafarians generally will call the movement a religion when they are in a situation were it is favorable to do so. A few years ago, there was an article in the Boston Herald about a Rastafarian who was caught with a large amount of marijuana, and he was charged with distribution as well as possession. The judge removed the distribution charge because the Rastafarian argued that the large amount of marijuana was for his personal religious use.
An anthropological view of the Rastafari culture clearly places it within the framework of Wallace’s criteria for a religion. These facts about the religion fascinated me, and I was almost hooked. Until I learned the one fact which turned me off! (There’s always at least one!)
Nyabinghi is a word with origins in Ethiopia. The one unifying aspect for all Rastafarians is the belief that Haile Selassie is “god.” Selassie was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. Rastas identify with Ethiopia because it is the word which is used historically for identifying the continent of Africa. Rastas do not use the word Africa when talking about the continent because it is a word created by the slave traders.
In the 1920’s, Marcus Garvey was misquoted as saying, “a Messiah would come to earth in the person of an African King.” Most of the Rastas were followers of Garvey, who was the leader of the Repatriation movement. Selassie’s Coronation in 1930 led the Rastas to believe he was “god,” and the leader of a secret society called Nyabinghi. Today, more moderate Rastas believe Selassie is simply the king placed on earth, chosen by “god.” The founders believed Selassie would lead the Africans to Zion, which is a perfect world. When Selassie died in 1975, Rastas believed it was a ruse, because “‘god’ cannot die.” Supposedly Selassie is living in a monastery and preparing to return and remove evil from the world. (I can’t wait!)
It is easy to understand the affect of Selassie on the Rastas by reading one of his quotes; “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”
Selassie had many names and the term Rastafari originates from one of his titles. Ras, in the Ethiopian language, is a royal title and Tafari is one of Selassie’s family names. The Nyabinghi includes Music, which is another behavior identified by Wallace. Rastas have their own music which eventually inspired Reggae. The Rastafarian music has its origins in Africa and the main instruments are drums. Reggae was very instrumental in spreading the ideology of the Rastafari. Bob Marley was a famous artist who used the guidance of Rastafarian elders to spread the movement’s message, but Reggae is not the music played during the Nyabinghi. The Rasta Music has a very African feel to it and has a sense of dread, because the Rastas feel they have nothing to be happy about as long as Babylon continues to be oppressive.
Could Selassie be “god?” NO! He became aware of the Rastas’ belief in the 1950’s and denied the rumors. “Was that good enough for the Rastas?” No! They said, “Selassie was being humble.” At first, Selassie was a great leader who helped many Ethiopians, but eventually he became a dictator. (I hate when “god” does that!) Asked about some of the atrocities committed by Selassie, Rastas reply, “No one can question ‘god’s’ actions.” (Yikes!)
If not for the belief in Selassie, I would have become a Rasta!