MONDAY, JULY 23: It’s the birthday of a savior today, as Rastafarians far and wide celebrate the 120th anniversary of Haile Selassie. Since the 1930s, the Rastafari movement has named itself after the late Ethiopian emperor (“Ras,” or “Head/Duke” and Tafari Makonnen, Selassie’s birth name) and has garnered hundreds of thousands of followers.
If you’re thinking of Bob Marley, dreadlocks and smoking marijuana, though, think again—this religion is about much more than carefree drumbeats, and it is currently fighting to return to its roots. What most non-Rastas probably don’t know about the faith is that its prophet based predictions on the Book of Revelation; to this day, study of the Bible is paramount. Biblical inspiration plays a major role in black nationalism, Jamaican politics and the “image and likeness” of a black messiah for Rastas. (Read more in the Jamaica Observer.)
Years before his enthronement, Emperor Haile Selassie I was predicted as the coming God incarnate by black nationalist Marcus Garvey. (Wikipedia has details.) Eager to find an image of God that resembled their own dark skin, Africans listened to Garvey’s prophesy; when Selassie took the throne of Ethiopia 1930, he was worshipped. Why? Titles like “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah” and “Root of David” could be applied to the descendant of King Solomon and Queen Makeda (known also as the Queen of Sheba). When news reports began circulating after Selassie’s coronation, the Rasta movement began.
Perhaps surprisingly, Selassie was a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. It’s not firmly documented whether Selassie ever tried to confirm or deny his divinity to Rastas. Rather, Selassie stated, “No one should question the faith of others, for no human being can judge the ways of God.” After WWII, Ethiopia regained its independence, and Rastas—regarding Ethiopia as the Promised Land—began moving there. In 1948, Selassie donated a portion of his private land in central Ethiopia for use by people of African descent in the West Indies. Several Rastafari families moved there, and many still live there today. (Looking for a kid-friendly way to observe this holiday? Check out the UK’s Assemblies.org.)
Rastas today hold onto the belief that Selassie will lead them to a golden age of righteousness and prosperity. Nandor Tanczos, a New Zealand Rasta, was an MP from 1999 to 2008 for the Green Party. Tanczos continued to promote his faith while on the national stage, but Tanczos also insisted that it is the Rasta way to “recognize and respect” the religious philosophies of others.