Insights from foreign places

We have readings in our services from a very wide range of sources. You’ve heard words from the bible, from Buddhist and Hindu scripture… you’ve heard contemporary and ancient poets… you’ve heard words from commentators in newspapers and even from the web. 

The second reading today comes from a person I have never before quoted and today, we’ll focus on a religion to which I’ve never given much thought before. [note: the reading is included below]

I was glancing through a list of important November anniversaries… as you do… OK, it’s probably not something everyone does for fun, but when you’re a minister in need of a topic for Sunday morning, it’s not a bad way to get some inspiration. 

And there in the list I notice that this month marks the 80th anniversary of the crowning of the emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. His name was Haile Selassie. 

Selassie came from a royal family that could reliably trace its lineage back to the 13th century. Popularly though, he was claimed to be a descendent of the great biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. 

Having stumbled upon this particular anniversary, I might well have moved right along to Monopoly – that game was created 75 years ago this month. We could have talked about the spiritual implications of buying Park Place and Boardwalk compared to getting the yellows and the reds. Is it better to have a few peak experiences or to have a spiritual way of being spread throughout the board of your life? I may have to return to that one. 

I could have focused on the fact that 50 years ago a British jury the publisher of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” of obscenity charges and talked about changing moral standards. I could have looked to the election of Ronald Reagan 30 years ago and depressed us all. Or maybe we could have considered our joys and sorrows around the 25th anniversary of the release of Microsoft Windows 1! 

But something about Haile Selassie caught my attention and this ultimately led to three insights, which I would like to share with you today. 

Haile Selassie was not the name that the Emperor of Ethiopia was born with. His name was Tafari and his title was Ras – which is a rank something like a duke. Does this sound familiar to you at all? Ras Tafari? Rastafari? It is from this name that the Rastafarian movement is derived. 

My first insight was that I am not as open-minded as I would like to be and that I am not by any means free of racist and classist prejudices. 

I know that sounds like a rather harsh insight. It is and it isn’t. I know I’m not alone in being imperfect. Somehow it seems to be acceptable to poke fun at and even ridicule Rastafarians in a way that would be completely unacceptable for Jews or Muslims for example. 

So this insight comes from the fact that I have never taken the Rastafarian religion seriously. I think there are several reasons why we seem so ready to belittle this movement: 

First, it centers on the belief that a man who was alive in the 20th century was God personified. Haile Selassie is believed to divine. This just seems silly to me. We have photographs of him! How could he be God? How could anyone believe such a thing? 

Second, Rastafarians smoke marijuana as part of their ritual observances, and I suspected that their religion was simply an excuse for recreational drug use. You know, you have to wonder about the possibilities there… 

And the third reason is that Rastafarians are not theologically oriented – they don’t write long intellectual treatises about their history and religious perspectives. Those sorts of endeavors create some kind of credibility

And you know, each of these reasons falls apart on closer inspection. 

Yes, it seems a bit less absurd for someone to believe that Jesus was God incarnate because he lived a long time ago and there’s a big book written about it. But in fact, there is no compelling reason I can find why one of these stories is more absurd than the other. If God is going to take on flesh, why does it make more sense for it to happen 2,000 years ago than 100 years ago? 

And drug use was hardly a Rastafarian innovation. Religions throughout the world have used drugs – including marijuana – as part of their religious rituals. If we tried out the customs of a wide variety of religions, it would be interesting indeed. No, I will not be distributing peyote in the world religions class! 

But did you know that Rastafarians condemn the drinking of alcohol and the eating of impure foods. What about the fact that marijuana use is preceded by specific prayers? 

All of these things erode my initial inclination simply to dismiss the Rastafarian movement out of hand. 

I judged the Rastafarian movement unfairly and that judgment came, at least in part, from classist and racist biases. My first insight is that, and it tells me that – like most white middle class people – I have work to do. 

The Rastafarian movement has a few things in common with us. It has no hierarchy and no dogma or creed. The individual Rastafarian is left to make up his or her own mind in many ways. 

And it has much that is not in common with us. The unifying beliefs about Haile Selasse certainly seem foreign to us. Theism is assumed and required. Rastafarian practice is plainly sexist too. The woman’s role is to support the man. 

And another way it differs is that it is a religion born of suffering and slavery. We come from more fortunate roots. While there was discrimination against Unitarians and other free thinkers, we did not come from a race enslaved. Our faith was not conceived by people ripped from their land and families and brutalized for the benefit of another race and class. Rastafarian thought and belief grew out of a deep hope for freedom and that there would be a time to go home – to a better place. 

Rastafarians consider the world they are currently living in to be Babylon. Go back to your biblical stories and you’ll see what they mean. There was a period known as the Babylonian Captivity when the ancient Hebrews were captives in the foreign land of Babylon following a disastrous war in the 6th century BCE. The Hebrews longed to go home to Zion – to Jerusalem. 

The Rastafarians long to return home to Africa – especially to Ethiopia – the place they refer to as Zion. 

From psalm 137 in the Hebrew scriptures: 

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion ... For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song ... How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a strange land?” 

And from psalm 19: 

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” 

I think there is something tremendously powerful about the notion of being in Babylon. Not literally… but I want to suggest that we are most certainly not living in our Zion. Babylon is the place where we become slaves to our work just to survive. Or perhaps we are wage slaves – working to maintain a standard of living we feel compelled to have because of the expectations set up by commerce and its constant indoctrination – advertising. 

Babylon is the place that tells us we are not connected – that we are alone and must fight for ourselves. Babylon is the place without trust, without hope, without connection, and without love. 

We might do well to recognize that we are not in Zion, and that we need to create our Zion around us. 

Rastafarians deliberately disobey the expectations of Babylon. Through their hair, their dress, their use of marijuana, and more, they declare “I will not live by my captor’s rules.” The second insight is just this. We will never find our Zion if we think we are already there or if we accede to the demands of this foreign culture around us. We need to understand that we are in a kind of Babylon and keep the vision of Zion clear in our hearts. 

And the third insight has more to do with how the Rastafarians do their religion rather than its content. 

Rastafarians do not sit quietly in worship. They do not sing tentatively or talk tentatively about their dedication to their god or their longing for Zion. 

Culturally, most of us here are… a bit stiff. Even when there’s a lively hymn, we don’t seem tempted to dance in the aisles. Rastafarians have Reggae and dancing. 

And Rastas love their God and they love their image of Zion. We have beliefs and causes to which we are dedicated, but we hold back. Sometimes I wish that we could just let ourselves be overcome with the awe we feel at the wonders of the universe. I wish we could let ourselves be carried away by the beauty we see within each other. I wish we could feel the power of our love so strongly that it makes us jump for joy. 

The third insight is that I want to see our religion felt and lived in our very bones – not just in our heads. 

80 years ago, Haile Selassie was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia. It didn’t make a big difference in the western world. 

It did, however, provide the trigger for the development of a worldwide religious movement that is several times larger than our own. And while there are many aspects of the Rastafarian movement that may not appeal to us, there is much we can learn from any and every encounter with difference if our hearts and minds are open. 

Let us be so open. Let us be clear of our vision for the world. Let us be unrestrained in our awe and our love. 

May it be so.



Excerpt from a speech by Haile Selassie


Last May, in Addis Ababa, I convened a meeting of Heads of African States and Governments. In three days, the thirty-two nations represented at that Conference demonstrated to the world that when the will and the determination exist, nations and peoples of diverse backgrounds can and will work together, in unity, to the achievement of common goals and the assurance of that equality and brotherhood which we desire. 


On the question of racial discrimination, the Addis Ababa Conference taught, to those who will learn, this further lesson: That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned; That until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation; 


That until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained; 


And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed; Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will; Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil. 


We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community.