What Is Rastafarianism? Who Was Bob Marley?

By Wayne Jackson

“What is the religion called Rastafarianism, and how is such related to the Jamaican entertainer, Bob Marley (1945-1981)?”

Rastafarianism is a religious movement (especially popular in Jamaica — 5% to 10% of the population) that is less than a century old. It had its beginnings in a black, political movement that started in the 1920s/30s.

One of the early influences who paved the way for the rise of this cult was Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). Garvey, who lived in New York City, believed that the black man would never receive fair treatment in a white man’s world. He thus organized a “back-to-Africa” movement that attracted thousands of followers among the poor blacks of certain large-city urban areas. Garvey was convicted of mail fraud, spent time in prison, and finally returned to his native Jamaica in 1927.

At about the same time, Garvey allegedly “prophesied” that a black king would be crowned in Africa, and through that monarch deliverance for dark-skin people would be realized eventually. Garvey himself never joined the subsequent religious movement that became known as Rastafarianism.

In 1930, a man by the name of Ras Tafari Makonnen (1893-1975) was crowned as emperor of Ethiopia. He became more popularly known as Haile Selassie I (signifying, “Power of the Trinity”), a name he chose for himself. Selassie was from a dynasty that boasted of having descended from a union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (of which there is no biblical evidence). At his coronation, he was exalted as “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, His Imperial Majesty of the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God.” In the minds of many, Selassie was perceived as the “fulfillment” of Marcus Garvey’s earlier “prophecy.”

The followers of Selassie began to designate themselves as “Rastafarians,” after the emperor’s original name (though, apparently, Selassie himself never joined the sect). The main focus of the movement was in Jamaica, but many Rastafarians migrated to the United States in the 1960s/70s. They now number more than 1,000,000 world-wide.

Like many other systems, Rastafarianism has segments within it that advocate various shades of religious ideas. But these sects have one thing in common. Each teaches doctrines that are antagonistic to the Christian system as revealed in the New Testament. Here is a brief listing of some of the false ideas associated with this religious movement.

Selassie Divine

Though Haile Selassie died in 1975, some Rastafarians believe he is alive still; most, however, simply honor him as their “King of Kings” in “spirit.” He is considered to be “divine.”

The Three Incarnations

The “god” of this hybrid religion is called “Jah” (an abbreviated form of “Jehovah”), whom many devotees believe had “three incarnations” – Melchizedek, Jesus Christ, and Haile Selassie (who was supposed to be the ultimate embodiment of “Jah”). Each of these persons is alleged to have been a “savior” in some sense.

Black Judaism

An especially important doctrine of the movement (known as “Black Judaism”) is the notion that the black race constitutes the modern counterpart of the ancient Hebrews. Supposedly, the white race descended from a very wicked civilization, and is an “unnatural” segment of humanity.

The ultimate hope of militant Rastafarians is that all black people can return to Africa for a while, though eventually they hope to span the globe and become the dominate race of humanity. Many of them believe (and hope) that, ultimately, the world’s white population will experience a total collapse.

Rastafarianism among black people is as radical as the obnoxious white-supremacist groups are among Caucasians. Some Rastas believe that the white man’s “god” is Satan, and white people are to be designated as spiritual “Babylon.” The Rastafarian populous has but a small minority of non-blacks.

The “Black Man’s Bible”

The religious text of the Rastafarians is called “The Holy Piby,” also designated as the “Black Man’s Bible.” This volume was compiled by Robert A. Rogers between 1913-1917. Rastas allege that, under the influence of the early Roman popes, church scholars distorted the Amharic Bible by characterizing God and his prophets as being Caucasian, instead of black.

“Wisdom Weed”

The “sacrament” of Rastafarianism is ganja (marijuana), called the “wisdom weed.” Leaders urge adherents to smoke marijuana as a religious ritual. Supposedly, marijuana was found growing on Solomon’s grave, and it is claimed that there is biblical support for the spiritual use of “pot” – in scripture texts such as Exodus 10:12; Psalms 104:14, which suggest that “herbs” were created for man.

Dreadlocks A Symbol of “Racial Selfhood”

Many Rastafarian men allow their hair to grow out into “dreadlocks” — the term “dread” having become a praise-word in their vocabulary. It is employed to describe the “confrontation” of a people who are struggling to maintain “racial selfhood,” which they contend has been denied them.

In part, the purpose behind these long plaits of hair is to demonstrate a contrast to the generally straight hair of Caucasians, and to “mock” those who disdain their bedraggled appearance.

Core Beliefs

As mentioned earlier, Rastafarians are not united in their beliefs, but some core concepts are these: hatred for the white race, the superiority of blacks, the hope of an eventual return to Africa, the acknowledgement of Haile Selassie as the “Supreme Being” and only ruler of black people, and no existence after this life.

Ethiopia is considered to be the Rasta “heaven on Earth,” and there is no such place as an eternal punishment in “hell.”

Bob Marley: Rasta Populist

Bob Marley (1945-1981) was a Jamaican who helped popularize Rastafarianism during the 1970s. He and his musical group (the Wailers) blended traditional Jamaican music with various other forms (e.g., American rhythm and blues) into a style known as Reggae (though some traditional Rastas consider this form of music as a “sellout” to white “Babylon”).

Marley, a heavy pot-smoker, was a militant follower and advocate of Rastafarianism. Students of this movement suggest that Marley became a symbol of “Rasta values and beliefs.” He died of cancer in 1981, though his popularity lives on in some who may be unaware of (or undisturbed by) his heretical religious inclinations.

This brief essay has not been designed as a refutation of Rastafarianism. That hardly needs to be done on behalf of anyone who even remotely respects the teaching of Jesus Christ. This discussion has been intended merely to inform those who may not be familiar with the doctrines and practices of this cult.

Sources/Footnotes
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.