Archive for July, 2009
When Haile-Selassie I visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966, somewhere between one and two hundred thousand Rastafari from all over Jamaica descended on Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, having heard that the man whom they considered to be God was coming to visit them. Cannabis was widely and openly smoked. When Haile-Selassie I arrived at the airport he refused to get off the aeroplane for an hour until Mortimer Planner, a well known Rasta, persuaded him that it was safe to do so. From then on the visit was a success. Rita Marley, Bob Marley‘s wife, converted to the Rastafarian faith after seeing Haile-Selassie I. She claimed, in interviews, that she saw scars on the palms of Selassie’s hands (as he waved to the crowd) that resembled the envisioned markings on Christ’s hands from being nailed to the cross — a claim that was never supported by other sources, but nonetheless, a claim that was used as evidence for her and other Rastafarians to suggest that Selassie I was indeed their Messiah.
Haile-Selassie I’s attitude to the Rastafarians
Haile-Selassie I had no role in organising or promoting the Rastafari movement, which for many Rastas is seen as proof of his divinity, in that he was no false prophet claiming to be God in order to enjoy the benefits of being a cult leader. He was a devout member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, as demanded by his political role in Ethiopia, and it was to his role as Emperor of Ethiopia that he devoted his life. His publicly known views towards the Rastafarians varied from sympathy to polite interest reinforced by the fact that his political inclinations, including African emancipation, were those of the Rastafari movement.
Yet in his speeches and writings there is substantial material about the spiritual life, and he often addressed his audience in the tone of a spiritual teacher. For instance, he wrote “Knowing that material and spiritual progress are essential to man, we must work ceaselessly for the attainment of both… No one should question the faith of others, for no human can judge the ways of God”. During the Emperor’s visit to Jamaica, he told Rastafari community leaders that they should not emigrate to Ethiopia until they had liberated the people of Jamaica. On another occasion Selassie said “We have been a child, a boy, a youth, an adult, and finally an old man. Like everyone else. Our Lord the Creator made us like everyone else,” (in an interview with Oriana Fallaci, Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1973) and the Rastafarians do see Selassie as man or flesh incarnate. On numerous occasions Selassie expressed his belief in his faith, stating that one is doomed apart from faith in Christ, who in the Tewahido faith is considered both man and God: “A rudderless ship is at the mercy of the waves and the wind, drifts wherever they take it and if there arises a whirlwind it is smashed against the rocks and becomes as if it has never existed. It is our firm belief that a soul without Christ is bound to meet with no better fate.” (One Race, One Gospel, One Task, address to the World Evangelical Congress, Berlin, October 28, 1966). He also encouraged religious freedom and tolerance. “Since nobody can interfere in the realm of God we should tolerate and live side by side with those of other faiths… We wish to recall here the spirit of tolerance shown by Our Lord Jesus Christ when He gave forgiveness to all including those that crucified Him.”
In order to help the Rastas and their aspirations of returning to Africa the Emperor donated a piece of land at Shashamane, 250 km south of Addis Ababa, for the use of Jamaican Rastafarians and there is a community there to this day.
The Rastafarians’ attitude towards Haile-Selassie I
Rastas say that they know Haile-Selassie I is God, and therefore do not need to believe it; belief to them implies doubt, and they state they have no doubts about his divinity. He is a central theme and presence within the life of Rastafarians. He is seen as a symbol of black pride, and as a king for African people. The Rastafarians use his full name, Haile-Selassie I, pronouncing the Roman numeral that indicates “the first” as the word “I”, that being the first person pronoun, thus emphasising both the personal relationship they have with him and also that God is to be found within the human being; he is also called “Jah Rastafari Selassie I,” and affectionately “Jah Jah”. They are very proud of knowing and declaring that he is their God. They have never been worried by Haile-Selassie never claiming to be God, arguing that the real God would never claim to be so just to get worldly acclaim and power. Roots reggae is full of thanks and praises towards “Selassie I”. The Rastas say that Haile-Selassie I will one day call the day of judgement, calling the righteous and the faithful to live with him forever on a new Earth ruled from Holy Mount Zion, said to be a place in Africa. Some Rastas state that “Zion is a state of mind”, emphasising that Zion is a current earth reality and not some place in the sky only to be experienced after one has died.
The first Rastafari to appear in front of a court was Leonard Howell, who was charged with sedition against the state and its King George V of the United Kingdom. Howell declared himself a loyal subject not of the King of the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth, but of Haile-Selassie I and of his country Ethiopia. When Emperor Haile-Selassie I came before the League of Nations to plead his case, and having it rejected by the League, this event confirmed their belief because the nations of Babylon, in reference to the ancient biblical place, will turn their backs to messiah on his return. They see their own rejection within the societies in which they live as being because they worship Selassie I. Many equated the Second Italo-Abyssinian War with the fight in the Book of Revelation between the returned messiah and the antichrist. The Emperor’s restoration to power in 1941 strengthened the Rastafari faith that he was Almighty God.
Rastas say that Haile-Selassie I is still alive, and that his purported death was part of a conspiracy to discredit their spiritual movement, and Selassie himself. In addition to being a political and historical figure, Haile-Selassie I has become a popular culture symbol for God through the Rastafari movement. Many Rastas are concerned that the world does not see Haile-Selassie I in a positive light due to negative and unproven rumours about large bank accounts that the Marxist government in Ethiopia claimed he had used to salt away the wealth of the country.
Haile-Selassie’s core beliefs of ethnic integration, a united Africa and the following of a moral path are at the heart of Rasta philosophy and vision as are Selassie I’s own teachings on morality and spirituality.