A Rastaman, with hair in dreadlocks, worn by many of the faithful.
A Rastaman, with hair in dreadlocks, worn by many of the faithful.

An Abrahamic faith rooted in pan-Africanism, Rastafarianism is a complex and counter-cultural religion practiced predominantly in Jamaica and the Jamaican diaspora. As an Abrahamic faith, it acknowledges the existence of the biblical Jesus, though Rastafarian views on his role as a prophet vary.

History

The Rastafarian faith is an Abrahamic tradition, rooted in Jewish and Christian scripture. The foundation of Rastafarianism is the work of Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a Jamaican proponent of the Black Consciousness movement. This intellectual movement sought to fight the colonial mindset of oppression and conformity by embracing a pan-African identity across the black diaspora, emphasizing the commonalities of various diaspora cultures and a shared heritage. Garvey thought that this should culminate in a political and cultural union of all black people across the world, and the decolonization of the continent of Africa. The first written work explicitly identified as Rastafarian was Leonard P. Howell's "The Promise Key," which outlines the role of black people as the chosen of God, the need to break with the existing social system, and the goal of repatriation to Africa. Howell claims to have witnessed the coronation of Hailie Selassie I, the emperor of Ethiopia, in 1930. This launched Selassie's role as a central figure in Rastafarianism.

Theology and Beliefs

To understand Selassie's role, a bit of theology is necessary. Rastafarianism believes in a single God, composed of three parts as in the mainstream Christian trinity. This deity, Jah, has throughout the ages taken human form to deliver his message to mankind. Who these avatars were, precisely, is the subject of some discussion among Rastafarians. John the Baptist is occasionally held to be one. Jesus of Nazareth is commonly accepted as an incarnation of Jah, and the scriptures related to him are generally accepted as canon by Rastafarians. The New Testament is the core of most of the Rastafarian belief system, which pays a great deal of attention to the apocalyptic role of Jesus in the Revelation of St. John.

Haile Selassie and Jesus

Rastafarians refer to Jesus as Iyesus or Yashew, and accept him as an avatar of Jah. His ministry on Earth and his teachings are central to their beliefs, as is the idea of his resurrection and eventual return. When Haile Selassie became a prominent figure in the faith, the majority of Rastafarians accepted him as the second coming of Jesus, returned as a king. His empire, Ethiopia, would become the biblical paradise promised unto the faithful. Selassie himself harbored contradictory views on the subject. He stated in interviews with the mainstream press that he refuted the idea, citing his own mortality and the future generations to come. Many Rastafarian sources, however, claim that he never refuted his divinity as such and honored the faith placed in him by the people. The most likely explanation was offered, albeit obliquely, by the emperor himself. when asked by a journalist why he did not tell the Rastafarians that he was not Jesus, Selassie responded, "Who am I to disturb their beliefs?" (Source 3). The emperor, in essence, may have been being polite.

Another Coming of Jesus?

Haile Selassie died in 1975, creating a theological problem for Rastafarians. How could a dead man lead them to paradise? Responses varied. Some Rastafarians see Selassie's life and death as the "temporary paradise, promised in the Old Testament in 2 Esdras. Others view the emperor's death as a hoax, speculating the he lives on and is working to bring about his prophecy. Another common belief is that Selassie will return again as the second coming of Jesus foretold in Revelations. They believe that, per Revelations, he will return on judgment day to inscribe his name on the 144,000 faithful who are to be redeemed, and will lead them away from the corruption of Western society.