Rastafarianism’s claims to the Judeo-Christian God divides opinion

By Nason Mutambaneshiri

MUTARE – Though prevalent, Rastafarianism is a poorly understood religious movement in Zimbabwe. The religion’s claim to the Judeo-Christian God continues to divide opinion in a country with deeply entrenched Christian views.

At the centre of the often disputed claim is the enigmatic figure of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I – one of the most misunderstood figures in 20th-century history, alternately worshipped and mocked.

Haile-Selassie-007
Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, in Geneva in 1935. Photograph: Lucien Aigner/Corbis

The Abrahamic belief which developed in Jamaica in the 1930s, following his coronation in 1930 took its name from Selassie’s pre-coronation title, Ras Tafari Makonnen.

Rastafarian adherents worship him as Christ incarnate making audacious claims that the emperor was Jesus in his second coming.

Believing Ethiopia’s claim of the emperor’s claim to be a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba their claim of his being a messianic king was easy to make.

Rastafari movement developed in Jamaica among working class black people. It began in part as a social stand against whites and the middle-classes, who the Rastafarians saw as oppressors.

Among their grievances, the Rastafarians believed that by being taken to the Caribbean Islands by slave traders they had been robbed of their African heritage.

The invasion of Selassie’s sub-Saharan state by fascist Italy in 1935 gave the fledgling Rastafari movement impetus and a cause. It became a dominant event in the Rastafarian narrative of black martyrdom. Selassie was seen as a manifestation of the one true God and a bulwark against “Babylon” – oppressive colonial society.

They sought to re-capture and celebrate it through the Rastafarian movement.

Bob Marley
Internationally acclaimed Reggae artist Robert Nesta Marley popularised the Rastafarian movement through his music and lifestyle

International awareness of Rastafarianism grew in the 1970s as a result of the popularity of reggae music especially the international success of the late singer and song writer Bob Marley. By 1997 there were according to one estimate, around one million Rastafarians worldwide.

Other sources estimated that in the 2000s Rastafarians formed about five percent of the Jamaican population. The 2011 Jamaican census identified 29 026 individuals as Rastafarians.

Their claimed belief in the Judeo-Christian God however continues to be a subject of fierce debate.

“We believe in the Judeo-Christian God whom we call Jah with an emphasis on Old Testament laws and prophecies and the book of Revelations. Jah was manifested on earth as Jesus who we believe was black. This clearly shows that our God ‘Jah’ is the same as Christian God,” said Ras Zengeya

Rastafarianism takes its term for Jah, from the King James Version’s translation of Psalm 68:4 which reads in part, “Extol him that rideth up on the heaven by his name ‘Jah’, and rejoice before him”. The name is certainly a biblical name for God.

However, Farai Chadebinga a congregate of Children of God Apostolic savaged Rastafarians claim to the Christian God as mere fantasy.

“A group’s use of a biblical name for their God does not guarantee that the group is biblical. Just because Rastafarians apply a biblical name to their God does not mean they worship the God of the bible… The God that Rastafarians refer to as Jah is not triune and does not provide external salvation,” said Chadebinga.

Rastafarians are however insistent.

“We Rastafarians recognize Yeshua (Jesus) as our Lord and Saviour, and see Selassie I as one who continues the work of Christ through the line of David.

“Acts 2 vs 29-32 says God promised King David the Second King of Israel that he would raise up Christ according to the flesh to sit on David’s throne but the lamb did not do this. To Rastafarians this prophecy was about the second coming of Christ and Selassie fulfilled this.

A Rastafarian stands next to a banner of Haile Selassie in Kingston, Jamaica
A Rastafarian stands next to a banner of Haile Selassie in Kingston, Jamaica

“So we see Selassie and Christ as the same God manifesting at different times for different reasons,” said Ras Ngidza.

Priest Prince Munyarabvu of Zviratidzo ZvevaPostori Church, Mabika Section highlighted that Rastafari movement should not be compared to Christianity, Islam or Judaism and their Jah should not be compared with that of Christians because Rastafari levity is not an organised religion.

“They may have a set of beliefs that draw on many common themes from Christianity but that is not enough to make them Christian…

“They have a philosophy and a loosely organised way of life that includes some common themes and often re-uses terms and phrases found in Christianity but at its core is a completely separate set of beliefs,” said Munyarabvu

Although the Nyabinghi mansion of Rastafari says that they accept Christ, they pointed out that they don’t accept the word Jesus.

“Jesus is a Greek name. Christ’s real name is Yeshua that was changed to Jesus when Christianity got to Greece. We Rastafarians ask the question that if the angel told Marry to name her son Yeshua, by this name all men will be saved, why did you change his name?” says Ras Couja.

One Christian says that Rastafarians do not believe that Jesus is the way to God in the same way that the majority of Christians do.

“Normative Rastafarians beliefs are quite varied. They do not hold the same beliefs about sin, the reason for our separation from God or the only solution to that problem. They credit Jesus with being a good moral teacher and admire his rebel tendencies but they completely miss the main point of who he was,” said Shingai Munakamwe of Apostolic Faith Mission in Zimbabwe.

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