Thursday, September 20, 2012

From a resident of Babylon: The irony of dismissing Rastafari.

From a resident of Babylon.

Lately I have been interested in Rastafari*. It’s been a persistent interest which first began when I was in Toronto, Canada many years ago. It’s flared up lately with the writing of this blog.

This interest has stayed at a very low level of fulfillment. Rastafari is a hard “religion” to investigate for the following reasons:
*Self-identified Rastas only compose about 0.01% of the Australian population. (They only include about 600,000 worldwide) Sitting down with a community of Rastas (my preferred way of learning) is certainly not feasible in Bendigo.
* Rastafari is a belief system which emphasizes the autonomy of each believer. To some extent they are a mystical religion which requires direct engagement by the self with Jah (God). That’s a harder belief system to describe to outsiders.
*They reject the idea of  broad “isms” which benefit from academic study and consequently they aren’t clearly articulating their theology for that purpose. That’s partly due to their mysticism but also part of their critical approach to knowledge production;
They believe that knowledge production by a corrupt world order (Babylon) is the means of our mental slavery. As a resident of Babylon that puts me in a hard place to learn about them.

I am not much closer to “knowing” about Rastafari than I was when I first encountered it directly amongst the street involved youth of Toronto. Hence I’m not going to try explaining this belief system from this blog. Take whatever you learn about Rastafari from me with a big grain of salt.

Instead I merely want to explain my interest in Rastafari and why this belief system ought to interest anyone who is also interested in Christianity. I think that’s actually worthy enough of a series of posts because Rastafari is commonly dismissed as a “proper” religion and is certainly disregarded by most Christians as having anything to say to their faith. I’m interested in questioning what exactly a proper religion is anyway.

This first post is also hopefully a humble invitation to Rasta women and men to open a conversation about their beliefs. I’ll be titling each post in this series as from a resident of Babylon because I recognize that I am approaching this belief system from inside a culture of privelage and expectation. Part of that culture is the voice that says Rastafari can’t be worth looking at because it is not a powerful (white) religion. Hopefully we can all ignore that one.

The Irony of it all.

Sometimes the response of first century Jewish culture to Jesus is presented in the following way. The Jewish people are seen as waiting for their messiah but when such a messiah actually arrives they are not prepared to recognize them.

That’s a very simplistic rendering of the situation. Not all Jews in the first century anticipated a messiah. Very few (if any) would have anticipated an exclusive son of God who was themselves divine and uncreated. Despite that, all the earliest known Christians were Jews so some clearly were prepared to recognize him.

However this crude assessment of first century Judaism’s response to Jesus is at least as fair an assessment of modern western Christianity’s response to Rastafari. Once again not all Christians are waiting for the physical return of an individual Jesus Christ, but it is a fairly universal part of the faith. The Rastafari movement makes the claim that this wait is over and that the Messiah has returned but surprisingly not as expected.

If nothing else the psychology of the average Christian should be one which is open to just such a surprising re-incarnation of the Messiah. Crudely speaking first century Jews were surprised by Jesus. It seems forgetful to allow the same to happen to oneself as a Christian.

Obviously with a million wannabe Messiahs (like David Koresh) running around its exhausting to investigate all of them. As a basic rule however Christians want to reject any reason for disbelieving a Messiah that would have applied to their own messiah. That means the following reasons for dismissing Rastafari have to be discounted;

1. Rastafari is an ethnically and geographically specific religion. So too is a Christianity that began in Jerusalem and was centered on the life of a single man in that area. Further to understand Jesus’ message and role gentiles in his time needed to understand a whole Jewish story that would have been alien to them. An obligation to understand African history in order to access the meaning of Rastafari is not any different and shouldn’t be allowed to be a barrier for non-African Christians. In fact it may just be that God works through oppressed cultures best.

2. Isn’t the Rastafari movement all about cannabis use? The gospels record that Jesus was equally dismissed by his peers for his feasting and drinking. Christianity is not an ascetic religion originally. In fact wine is still a core element of most Christians worship. Further anyone who thinks that Rastafari is all about drug use needs to consider its role in fighting the real demon drug of American black communities – Crack - as well as alcohol abuse (some Rastafi would say that Alcohol is the drug of Babylon). As a drug educator I know that people around the periphery of Rastafari can absorb ideas that don’t help them to support peers who have a problematic relationship with cannabis.  But that’s the same with the drinking culture that is around the periphery of Christian societies.

3. Most importantly of all. Rasta is sometimes dismissed because the return of the Messiah they believe in didn’t change the world in any obvious way. This needs to be something that Christians are very careful before they care about. Yes, “Babylon” is still in charge and Africa, Africans and the whole world still can be seen as wearing its chains. That means that the Rastafari understanding of the immanence of Jah’s (God’s) kingdom in fact shares something perplexing and profound with the Christian understanding of the same. Jesus life and death didn’t change anything in how the world worked. The Romans were still occupying Jerusalem. Wars have still occurred and re-occurred since. You still get sick and die. For Jesus to be seen as victorious requires a very different idea of victory than the worlds. Hence the world’s measure of victory shouldn’t be used to dismiss the messiahs return in Rastafari or any other belief.

In future posts I hope to spell out what actually attracts me to Rastafari particularly. Then I might write about why I feel wary of it. For this post I just wanted to counter those internal voices that tell us that this faith is easily dismissable, particularly from a perspective of exploring the Christian story.

The last thing I would imagine that Christians want is to be waiting for the return of their messiah long after they have come. Given this is what they see as the failing of first century Jews, the irony would be astounding as well.

*I'm not sure if Rastafari or Rastafarianism is better grammer but as I think the ism is viewed negatively in Rasta culture I have gone with the former. I have no idea if I am using "Rasta" correctly either.

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