A couple of weeks back, on the Let’s Talk ZJB radio talk show here in Montserrat, a caller in the 9 pm call-in segment raised several typical Rastafarian talking points:
1] The inappropriately “white” Jesus of older Sunday School art [NB: he was a Semite, and so probably looked much like a Bedouin Arab does; cf. http://www.bibarch.com/News/News-Genetic-Brothers.htm and http://www.barzan.com/kevin_brook.htm on Abraham’s family and – given that the Kurds inhabit the region where the Northern Kingdom was exiled in 722 BC – perhaps some of the “lost tribes”];
2] His alleged status as a Nazirite [NB: this is based on an error, cf. Num. 6:1 – 7 with Matt. 11:16 – 19; for, Jesus of NazARETH drank wine, strictly forbidden to NazIRITES];
3] Christian failure to teach from the whole Bible (instead focussing on certain NT books and texts, especially from the writings of Paul; cf. http://www.angelfire.com/pro/kairosfocus/resources/PAUL_AND_CHRIST.htm );
4] The demand that Rastafarian thought be given an equally credible seat at the dialogue table [cf. http://www.angelfire.com/pro/kairosfocus/resources/straight_or_spin.htm ].
The resulting, subtly strained, on-air discussion set me to thinking. For in fact, while the questions the caller raised are significant, normally the church in the Caribbean does not devote much thought or effort to what is after all a regionally rooted, commonly encountered challenge to the orthoodox Christian faith; one that especially appeals to disaffected young men who are looking for roots in an African cultural identity. Indeed, while in fact several scholarly studies have been done and can be found in various libraries, I know of no handy reference on Rastafarianism and the issues it raises that is suitable for use by -- and commonly available to – Christians and others across the region who often encounter this sect and its teachings.
Why is that so?
On reflection, and with a bit of shame, I have to admit that, partly, this reflects the facts that (1) by and large, Caribbean Evangelicals are not long on scholarship, and (2) perhaps partly as a result, we do not really take Rastafarianism and the concerns and issues it reflects and projects seriously. Indeed, Rastas are quite commonly viewed as just a bunch of Ganja-smoking, half-baked, ill-educated -- or even half-mad -- malcontents. And, where we move beyond such ill-judged contempt and sweeping dismissals, the focus tends to be on the need for rootedness in Africa and the plight of the Black Man, so the serious theological and historical issues that lurk just below the surface of their claims are simply set to one side.
Neither response is acceptable, if we are to “truth it in love” as Paul counsels in Eph. 5:14 - 15.
Rastafarianism did in fact arise in Jamaica in the 1930’s as a movement of protest in a world where the black man was – and to a greater extent than we are willing to admit, still is – the principal victim of the global world and its trading system that began to emerge in the 1490’s when the Portuguese rounded Cape Horn and sailed on to India, and when one of their former captains, Columbus, sailed across the Atlantic and reached the Caribbean. That painful, and yet unfinished history has to be fully addressed, including the under-reported but pivotal and often painful role of the dissenting churches, black missionaries and church leaders such as George Liele, Sam Sharpe and George William Gordon in our liberation struggles. [Cf. http://www.angelfire.com/pro/kairosfocus/resources/Carib_liberty.htm ]
But equally, while we must appreciate the contribution of Rastafarians such as Bob Marley to the emergence of a comfortable black consciousness, if Christians are to retain street credibility, we must fully and fairly address the theological, historical and philosophical issues and concerns that the movement raises.
For instance, first and foremost, Rastafarianism is about viewing the last Emperor of Ethiopia as the biblical Messiah and God incarnate, so a proper response must begin with a brief and objective look at his history such as we may find at the Wikipedia site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haile_Selassie_of_Ethiopia . There, we will see that Haile Selassie’s life-story is partly inspiring, but partly tragically spoiled with the incompetence and corruption that so often taints those who hold absolute political power. We will also learn that Tafari Makkonen (his birth name; “Ras” means “duke”) was a life-long member of the Orthodox Christian Church of Ethiopia, and that he sent Christian missionaries to gently correct and guide the Rastas to a sounder faith in Christ when he realised (on an April 1966 state visit to Jamaica) that there was a sect in the Caribbean that was trying to worship him.
So, now, let’s talk . . . AMEN.