"Dread Jesus": A New View of the Rastafari Movement


William David Spencer’s Dread Jesus (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1999) is, quite simply, one of the best books by a Christian theologian about a new religious movement. Although Spencer examines primarily different views of Jesus Christ within the Rastafari community, the book is also a comprehensive history of the movement, of its sources, and of the differences between its many contemporary branches. It is also a valuable introduction to reggae music and its connections with the Rastafari community.

Spencer, as many Rastafari scholars before him, traces Rastafari back to the Ethiopianist movement and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), established in 1914 in Jamaica by Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940). While Zionists preached the return of Jews to Palestine, Ethiopianists suggested that African Americans should eventually return to Africa (and particularly to the historical heart of Africa, Ethiopia). Spencer reconstructs Ethiopianism as a Christian movement, although an unorthodox one. While Garvey’s image of a "black Christ" was consciously symbolic, other Ethiopianist preachers such as Robert Athyli Rogers (from the Caribbean island of Anguilla), founder of the Afro Athlican Constructive Church, regarded the "black Jesus" as one among many divine incarnations (for Rogers, the most important incarnation of God was Elijah ). Others, like Prophet Alexander Bedward in Jamaica, claimed to be the new messiah themselves. All this changed on November 2, 1930 when Ras Tafari was crowned as Emperor of Ethiopia as H.I.M. (His Imperial Majesty) Hailé Selassié I (1892-1975). World media covered the event, and most (although not all) Ethiopianists in Jamaica believed that this successor to the line of King Solomon, bearing titles such as "King of Kings" and "Lion of Judah", was indeed the Christ who was to return. Spencer insists on the role played on the foundation of Rastafari religion by three preachers: Leonard Howell, H. Archibald Dunkley, and Joseph Nathaniel Hibbert. As far as Dunkley and Hibbert are concerned, he insists on their membership in the Great Ancient Brotherhood of Silence, or Ancient Mystic Order of Ethiopia, one of the "black" (or "Prince Hall") Masonic organizations. Spencer claims that a number of features of Rastafari religion derive from this branch of Freemasonry (including the name "Jah" for "God", coming from the Masonic form "Jah-Bul-On"). Later Rastafari leaders and authors, such as Dennis Forsythe, were in turn influenced, according to Spencer, by the Rosicrucian order AMORC. Rastafari is, thus, a syncretistic faith including elements from the Western esoteric and occult tradition, Christianity, and Jamaican and Caribbean lore (including the trademark Rastafari dreadlocks, and the use of ganja).

Spencer also re-examines the well-known story of Selassié’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, his denial to be God or the return of Christ, and his attempt to lead Rastafarians into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (with only moderate success). He also examines the peculiar role of reggae singer Bob Marley (1945-1981) in the development of Rastafarian thought (an extreme fringe even believes Marley, rather than Selassié, to be the messiah). The most important part of Spencer’s book deals with Rastafari reactions to the Marxist revolution in Ethiopia, and the following imprisonment and eventual death of Selassié in 1975. While, in the immediate aftermath of these events , Selassié’s death was explained away as yet another "big lie" by the world media, gradually most Rastafarians recognized that His Imperial Majesty will not physically reappear any time soon. What happened, according to Spencer, was the separation of elements whose coexistence within the Rastafari community had always been difficult. While only a handful of Rastafarians followed Selassié’s counsel and joined the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a significant number (whose main international organization is the Twelve Tribes of Israel) adopted a more explicitly Christian approach, recognizing Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Selassié as a mere human (if all-important) prophet. Their Christ remains a "black Christ" within the frame of contemporary black or Africanist theology. As a reaction, an anti-Christian movement, the "bun Christ" (or "burn Christ") movement, manifested itself, particularly at certain reggae events. Rastafari has always been anti-Catholic (because it accuses the Catholic Church of having supported Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, seen as the ultimate sacrilege). Some contemporary Rastafarians are also anti-Christian, although many would qualify even the most extreme "burn Christ" statements by claiming that their quarrel is with the "white Christ" in whose name racist crimes have been perpetrated, not with a liberated "black Christ". There is little doubt, however, that one branch of Rastafari has followed the Eastern linings of one of the "founders", Leonard Howell, and has adopted a mystical view of Selassié’s soul as an entity quite independent from the Emperor’s physical manifestation. A portion of this divine spark or essence, eminently manifested in Selassié, is present in all Rastafari faithful, if not in all human beings, within the framework of a sort of gnostic pantheism true to the occult-esoteric connections of some of the "founders".

Rastafari, Spencer concludes, is at a crossroad, between Selassié as God (re-interpreted after the Emperor’s death in a pantheistic and gnostic sense) and "the God of Selassié", i.e. Jesus Christ. In the latter sense, Rastafari, or a branch of it, may eventually become a "Selassian" Christian Church, no less Christian for its veneration of Selassié as a prophet and a saint (just, Spencer notes, as there is a "Lutheran" Church, named after Martin Luther but certainly not claiming that he was the messiah). At any rate, Spencer takes seriously Rastafari as potential (and, at least in some cases, actual) "roots Christianity" of what he calls with the politically correct name of two-thirds world. While liberation theology has been too often a theoretical construct of Western intellectuals, movements such as Rastafari are a much more reliable indicator of the real feelings and spiritual needs of Caribbean and other two-thirds world spiritual seekers. In this perspective, Spencer’s book is a model of theological dialogue between traditional Christianity and a new, admittedly "bizarre", religious tradition. Similar enterprises should probably be attempted with respect to other new religious movements as well.

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Revised last: 4/27/2007