For most of us in the north Jamaica is too often only the tourist paradise of endless summer and lavish natural beauty. Rarely is it seen as a nation where two million souls are working out their salvation.
Before 1970 the only constant voice crying out in defiance of the established order was the Rastafarians, Jamaica’s modern day prophets. The 1920s and 1930s were the heyday of African nationalist movements in North America and the Caribbean. The back-to-Africa movement of Jamaican Marcus Garvey galvanized blacks in the US and throughout the Caribbean. Many others looked to Africa, and specifically Ethiopia (then the only African land not subjugated by the Europeans), for political, spiritual and cultural guidance.
Soon after the crowning of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930, a movement began in Jamaica which proclaimed him the returned Messiah, rejected the legitimacy of British rule and devoted its energies to a massive return of black people to Africa.
Like early Christianity, the Rastafarian movement developed underground for many years, incubating in isolated rural colonies which few people knew about. In the 1950s the authorities attempted to destroy a major Rasta settlement outside Kingston, but succeeded only in causing many of the Rastas to relocate in the slums of Kingston. There in the crowded back streets their culture and creed found a fertile soil and took strong root among the poor and dispossessed.
Although a vigorous nationalism arose in Jamaica in 1938 the movement was devoted to working within the political and economic system developed by the colonial masters. Except for scattered individuals, there was no one organization willing to call into question the very legitimacy of the system which kept so many Jamaicans impoverished.
The rise of the Rastafarians and their emergence into public view in the 50s changed that. There was hardly an aspect of the old order with which the Rastarfarians did not find fault. They pronounced the morality hypocritical, the religion idolatrous, the culture decadent, the government illegitimate and the class system unjust.
Although they don’t advocate violence the Rastas were targeted by the authorities as subversive. Their coiled dreadlocks and simple clothing were easy targets for police brutality. But for every Rasta cut down by police bullets, there sprang up a hundred new adherents. Among the many voices which tried to catch the ear of the poor Jamaican masses, the radical critique and the new salvation preached by the Rastafarians stood out. The movement began to attract ever growing numbers, especially among those most alienated: the young men without work, education or hope.
Book of Revelations
Although it is not a political ideology as such, the creed of the Rastas is capable of developing a consciousness among the dispossessed which is as radical as any produced in the West.
The Book of Revelations is among the favourite texts because of its powerful images of the chosen people pitted in relent-less battles against the imperial authority of Rome. The Rastafarians identify strongly with that early generation of Christians, who longed intensely for the return of the Messiah and who resisted staunchly the dehumanizing demands of the imperial lords.
The Rastafarians have drawn inspiration from the Hebrew prophets and the firstgeneration Christians. But from their own experience of suffering and their powerful desire for liberation they have formed a social force whose roots are strongly Jamaican. Whereas most Jamaican churches teach Christianity, which stresses acceptance of suffering, obedience to established powers and hope in a hereafter, the Rastafarians offer a radically different message.
According to one group the Christian religion was a `colonial thing what the white man bring down here to enslave the black man. When we hear the bell ring at Sunday morning time for church, we think it was the same slave-bell. We take the chain off our foot and we go sit down and hear about Jesus.’
For the Rastafarians the dividing line between divinity and humanity is not so neatly drawn as it is for conventional Christians. Their frequent proclamation is that `God is man and man is God’. They find no revelation of God’s existence and nature except through fleshly, human reality. The Rastas reject decisively the `God in the sky’ which is worshipped by colonial Christians. Such a conception, they claim, is designed to deceive the poor into remaining passive and complacent - instead of rising up and taking possession of what is rightfully theirs. The God of the Rastas, ‘JAH’ to those who recognize him, reveals himself through the unfolding of human history, not in dizzying descents from on high.
Just as the Rastas reject the alienating aspects of the `spiritual’ God of the churches, so they dismiss the teachings about heaven and afterlife as further devices to lead the people astray. What better way, they argue, to quell and contain the rebellious instincts of the transported Africans than to indoctrinate them in the glories of another life which will compensate for the miseries of this one. For the Rastas there is only one life and only one world to live it in. If we insist upon squandering this life and this world, another will not be given us.
In accord with their dismissal of the otherworldly aspects of European religion, the Rastas pay special reverence to the natural universe, considering it the authentic manifestation of divinity. The earthisto be considered a mother, to be cared for and preserved, not desecrated and destroyed.
Many of the external habits which characterize the Rastas are explained in large part by their devotion to nature. The long dreadlocks which bedeck the Rasta’s head are considered the `natural way’ for their hair to grow; trimming and barbering are for them the real barbarism. Smoking ganja (marijuana, the `holy herb’) is a sacramental act, a communing with the God who makes all plants grow, a means to wisdom and health. The Rastas eat their food in the `I-tal’ fashion: without salt, meat, preservatives or other unnatural ingredients which they consider damaging to the human body.
The Rastafarian faith is apocalyptic in much the same way as was the new testament Christian faith. For the Rastas the final judgement is already in process. The lines are drawn for the battle of Armageddon and there is a clear division between the high and the mighty oppressors of humankind and the humble forces fighting for justice. The Rastas challenge the would-be Christians of Jamaica and the Caribbean to take sides quickly, to leave their `Babylon’ existence and return to Zion, Africa. Babylon for them symbolizes the whole white, Western Christian civilization which has for centuries subjugated the peoples of the Third World, but which in itself is now ready to come tumbling down.
The Rastafarian creed restores vital elements of the original Christian gospel, elements which have been conveniently left out of conventional Christian teaching. But it is not only what the Rastafarians have to say - it is also how they say it and to whom that gives them awesome sway over the minds and hearts of so many in the English-speaking Caribbean and in West Indian communities abroad.
Anger and frustration
The Rastafarians aim their message at the most desperate and dispossessed members of Caribbean society. They are convinced that only the poor of the earth have the wisdom needed for the `word’ to take hold. The Rastas have been most successful with the young men in their teens and twenties who have been excluded from participation in the larger society and are seething with anger and frustration.
The prophetic style of the Rastas reaches right into the heart of the impoverished ghettos; it speaks in colourful creole, employing vivid imagery drawn from the scriptures and daily life. And every Rasta is expected to be able to carry on a ,reasoning’ about the meaning of the faith, since every Rasta is a prophet. A highly developed counter-culture has sprung up which offers young people an escape from `Babylonian’ existence and provides them with the freedom they need to express themselves and their culture. Reggae music played by Jamaicans like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff has become the medium par excellence for the new culture and has attracted an international following for the Rasta creed in the process.
The Rastas are sometimes dismissed as ,reactionary’ because of the religious characterof theirmovement. However,long before any organized political opposition in Jamaica, the Rastafarians were waking people up to the realities of oppression as no one else was capable of doing. Even now the Rastafarian mastery of symbol and language stands in stark contrast to the unfamiliar concepts and arid language of Western-orientated politics. But make no mistake about it, like others who seek fundamental change and a better life on earth,the Rastas too are revolutionaries.
Joseph Owens is a Jesuit Priest and author of Dread: The Rastafarians of Jamaica.