NYABINGHI ELDERS EXPLAIN PRINCIPLES OF THEIR FAITH
by Hugh Hamilton
CITY SUN – June 15-21,1988
In the esoteric domain of theological lexicography, the doctrine of Rastafari more often is defined as cult than as religion. But the religiosity of the faith is not easily refuted.
Influenced by traditional Judeo-Christian religious thought Rastafari is a theistic system of belief and worship drawing its scriptural authority from the commonly accepted Bible of the Christian church. Yet it is not merely a derivative of Judeo-Christian teaching; the brethren (followers) of Rastafari bring to the scriptures a unique, afrocentric interpretation that varies radically from that of the uninitiated on important theological issues.
Recently The City Sun spoke with the visiting Elders of the Rainbow Circle Room-the House of the Order of Nyahbinghi One of several Rastafarian sects in Jamaica. The Nyabinghi believe in a global theocracy to be headed by Emperor Haile Selassie I, whom they proclaim to be the promised Messiah and incarnation of the Supreme Deity. It is their perspective of Rastafari which is represented in this article.
It is important to note that the Nyahbinghi differ significantly from other Rastafarian sects on important questions including the inherent divinity of Emperor Selassie I
Additional sources have been used to compile sources for this article. Except where otherwise indicated, however, the direct quotes are those of the Nyahbinghi Elders.
To the orthodox theologian, the most unsettling assertion of Rastafari is the inherent divinity of His Imperial Majesty (H.1.M.) Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, who the brethren proclaim to be the true and living God. Rastafarians consider the Bible the chronicle of their African history, albeit truncated by European translators who intentionally confused certain portions of the Scripture to obfuscate the facts and prevent the African people from recognizing their Israelite ancestry
The religion takes its name from Ras (Prince) Tafari of Ethiopia, who assumed the name Haile Selassie (Might of the Trinity) at his coronation in November 1930. To his new name Ras Tafari also added the titles"King of Kings", "Lord of Lords", and "Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah".
The coronation of the Negus (King) amid great pomp and ceremony at St. George's Cathedral in Addis Ababa gave new meaning to the ideology of African Nationalism earlier embraced by followers of Marcus Mosiah Garvey in Jamaica. Garvey's philosophy of African Fundamentalism had exhorted Africans everywhere to"canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs and elevate to positions of fame and honor Black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history."
"Never forget your God," Garvey had warned followers."Remember we live, work and pray for the establishing of a great and abiding racial hierarchy, the founding of a racial empire whose only natural, spiritual and political limits shall be God and Africa, at home and abroad!"
Although Garvey himself never visited Africa, his teachings had galvanized Africans throughout the diaspora under the revolutionary slogan, "One God, One Aim, One Destiny."
In the theology of Rastafari, Garvey is a great prophet, analogous to John the Baptist. Selassie's accession to the throne of Ethiopia evoked among Garveyites powerful recollections of his earlier exhortations:
"Wake up, Ethiopia! Wake up, Africa! Let us work towards the one glorious end of a free, redeemed and mighty nation. Let Africa be a bright star among the constellation of nations. Africa for the Africans; those at home and those abroad."
Some 14 years before the crowning of the Negus, Garvey reportedly had told his followers in Jamaica, "Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King; he shall be the redeemer."
Selassie's accession to the throne was hailed by Garveyites as the fulfillment of that prophecy and an incontrovertible indication that the Messiah had come to deliver his people from Babylonian captivity and return them to the Promised Land of Africa. The Garveyites later would become the first Rastafarians.
SECULAR AND SCRIPTURAL
The brethren of Rastafari require no second bidding to cite numerous secular and scriptural bases for their belief in the divinity of H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie. Indeed, devotees of the faith do not consider the matter to be one of belief, but of knowledge. In doctrine of Rastafari, belief implies there is room for doubt; knowledge eliminates the opportunity for disbelief.
Evidence of the Emperor's divine lineage is revealed in the first article of Ethiopia's constitution, which affirms:"imperial dignity shall remain perpetually to the line of Haile Selassie I, descendant of King Sahle Selassie whose line descends without interruption from the dynasty of Menelik I, son of the Queen of Ethiopia-the Queen of Sheba, and King Solomon of Jerusalem."Ã‚
The titles which H.I.M. has taken unto himself also are considered sufficient proof of his divinity, since they are identical to those titles reserved in the Holy Scripture for the returned Messiah. The books of Revelation and Psalms reveal that identity to the brethren;
"Glorious things are spoken of thee, oh City of God, I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me: Behold Philistia, and Tyre; with Ethiopia; this man was born there." Psalms 87:3-4
"And he hath on the vesture and on his thigh a name written, King of Kings and Lord of Lords." Rev. 19:16
"And I saw an angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book and loose the seals thereof? And no man in heaven, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon. And I wept much …. and one of the elders said unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the root of David had prevailed to open the book and to loose the seals thereof." Rev. 5:2-5
H.I.M.'s claim to the throne of Solomon makes him a lineal descendant of the root of David. It is the same root that produced Jesus Christ who, the brethren say, was one and the same with Selassie but of "an earlier dispensation."
In their prayers and rituals, Rastafarians also refer to H.I.M. as Jah, an abbreviated form of Jehovah and appearing in Psalm 68:4,"Sing unto God… extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his name JAH."
And to those who are inclined to doubt the ethnicity of the returned Messiah, the brethren offer additional scriptural references:
"I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of Days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair on his head like pure wool." Daniel 7:9
"For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am Black; astonishment hath taken hold of me."- Jer. 8:21
Their Afrocentric interpretation of the Scriptures inevitably brings the brethren of Rastafari into conflict with others who interpret the same Scriptures differently. But the faithful believe theirs is a divinely inspired perspective,"an inborn, spiritual revelation that comes to Rastafari from the creative power of His Imperial Majesty." It is an interpretation revealed only to those who" walk in the fields of righteousness and are in harmony with Nyabinghi."
Ras Sam Brown, elder of the House of the Order of Nyabinghi, explains the revelation of Divinity in his widely respected Treatise on the Rastafarian Movement: "Unlike all orders of religion, the culture of Rastafari was not handed down from father to son, as the people of Christendom. We who have perused the volumes of history know that in this 20th century a king would arise out of Jesse's root, who should be a God for his people and a liberator of all the oppressed of earth. We the Rastafarians who are the true prophets of this age, the reincarnated Moses and Joshuas, Isaiahs and Jeremiahs…..are those who are destined to free not only the scattered Ethiopians (Africans) but all people, animals, herbs and life forms…. God came in many bodies to reign forever in Rastafari, the holy one of Israel, whose ray of light shall finally dim the eyes of the dragon and through whose power all those of many nations who embrace the faith and uphold its laws shall live forever more with God…."
HOUSE OF THE ORDER OF NYABINGHI
The elders of the House of the Order of Nyabinghi are the keepers of the faith, inheritors of the "Divine Order of Melchizedek"and masters of the musical and oral traditions of the Nyabinghi Order.Ã‚
Nyabinghi itself is an abstract philosophical concept that embraces the theological foundations of Rastafari and the propagation of the Rastafari message through its own oral and musical traditions."Nyabinghi is the only indigenous music of Rastafari. It is the only Divine Order of the Rastafari Movement. The full judgment of Nyabinghi is death to white and black downpressors. It is a fountain of purifying love. Nyabinghican take life or give life at will. Historically, its musical tradition was used to send messages from person to person, from country to country.The purpose of Nyabinghi is to resurrect the people from darkness intolight and to set all Black people free. Anyone can be a follower of Rastafari but the Order of Nyabinghi [exclusively] is intended to liberate all African people and set them in the ways of truth and right and teach them to love and live as Jah Rastafari had wished from the beginning."
This seemingly abstruse concept finds its most popular expression in the festivals of the Order, where the Nyabinghi drummers beat out their infectious, hypnotic rhythms unceasingly in seemingly end less cathartic ceremonies.
The rituals of Rastafari find their fullest expressionat the festival of the Nyabinghi where only the pure in heart may escapethe judgment meted out to the unfaithful and the disbeliever through themystic force of the music.
Dr. Leonard E. Barrett, a Jamaican and graduateprofessor of religion in the United States, researched the Nyahbinghi aspart of his comprehensive study, "The Rastafarians."Ã‚
"The term 'Nyahbinghi' comes to us from East Africa and refers to a religio-political cult that resisted colonial domination from the last decade of the 19th century to about 1928," Barrett writes. "The term might have been the name or title of a Ruandaise royal princess who was killed by colonialist because of herresistance. After her death cults arose which were influenced by her spirit. The members of the cult experienced spirit possession and the medium ofthese cults was always a woman.
"The Nyahbinghi is the most important meeting of the Rastafarians, involving members from all over the island. It iscomparable to the movement's convention and may last from one or threedays to even a week."
Barrett relates in his book how he attended onesuch Nyahbinghi meeting at which "the air was thick with smoke from theholy herb (marijuana) and the drums kept a haunting beat…. One tune continuedas long as an hour and without a break before another was started and continuedon and on throughout the evening until the drummer was exhausted and hisplace was taken by another drummer…."
The smoking of marijuana, also known as ganja,is an integral part of the Nyabinghi, whose followers believe the herbpossesses important healing and other positive qualities necessary forlong and healthy life.
"Ganja is the herb of life, It is, the herb oflongevity for the healing of the entire nation. It is the sacrament ofthanksgiving used in divine rituals."
The Nyabinghi abhor the use of dangerous drugswhich they say are in a category of substances apart from the holy herb. "Cocaine, heroin and otherdangerous drugs are unlawful and forbidden."
"What is ganja? We know it's a plant Createdby God to fulfill men's want. The powers that be say man should not useit, (Yet) they use it in secret; but show its abuse."
"The false Rasta who uses dangerous drugs is an impostor. Nyabinghi is non-violent and nonabusive."
Early researchers have portrayed the brethren of Rastafari, particularly the followers of Nyabinghi, as a violent breed,actively seeking the destruction of the uninitiated, particularly the whiteman. But the religion of Rastafari forbids violence and killing. The misconception has come about through ignorance of their doctrine. The Rastafarian say "Death to Black and White downpressors" is not so much a battle cry as an affirmation of destiny. Although Rastafarians believe that Blacks inevitably will rule the world, their doctrine requiresof them tolerance of other races, particularly those who have repented.
"My own deepest convictions about the absence of racism among the brethren are derived from my experience as a whiteman moving freely among them," writes the Rev. Joseph Owens in his book Dread-The Rastafarians of Jamaica.
"Once an initial trust was established … they accepted me as an equal; they did not look down on me or up to me; they manifested neither an air of superiority nor a fawning adulation. Although the white race has been guilty of grievous crimes against the earth's colored peoples, Rastas are willing to admit that there are both good and bad inthe white race, just as in the Black," he writes.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the brethren is their hair, arranged in flowing locks. But the infiltration of their ranks by "false dreads" who give the movement a bad name now makes it impossible to identify the true Rasta only by appearance.
"We wear our hair in locks because of a sacred vow – the vow of the Nazarite. Whenever God has ordained his people, he has always set them apart from the rest of society. Our locks are a symbol of separation from evil, even as they were for other brethren throughout the Scripture: 'It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments.' Psalm 133:2"
The diet of the Rastafarian is strictly vegetarian, hence his love of agricultural pursuits. In Jamaica, where the religion first emerged and attained its highest forms of expression, Rastafarians are among the most productive farmers. Rastas reject the" artificial foods and medicines" of Western cultures, preferring to live "naturally." Many clothe themselves in robes of green, gold and red, colors of the Ethiopian flag. "The red represents the blood shed for the liberation and independence of our people; the gold represents the mineral wealth of the land; the green represents the rich fields of Ethiopia." Many live in communes, sharing common resources and singing praises to Jah Rastafari.
SCHOLARSHIP AND INQUIRY
The emergence and growth of Rastafari have been subjects of intense academic study, particularly in the Caribbean and North America, where the religion has flourished despite considerable opposition and misunderstanding. To many scholars it is the inevitable out growth of a dispossessed, displaced people seeking to define their own needs on their own terms and providing for themselves the appropriate answers to their unanswered questions.Ã‚
Professor Rex Nettleford of the University of the West Indies describes the reality of Rastafari as "a vibrant theology that has emerged out of a process of growth and struggle. In creating their own religion the Rastafarians depend not only on the historical, empirical experience of African descendants in the diaspora for analysis to determinean active plan for liberation, they draw as well on the transcendental sources of human sensibility and imagination. For as persons who see themselves to be persecuted, wronged and deprived, to be all but trapped in a situationof persistent material poverty and cultural degradation, the only way out, short of violent aggression, is through an apocalypse," Nettleford says.
C. Eric Lincoln, in his introduction to Barrett's book, The Rastafarians, is even more direct in his analysis, pointing to similarities between Rastafari and the religious beliefs of Black Muslimsin the West.
"The Rastafarians and the Black Muslims are both the products of extreme social dislocation and the similarities between the movements are very striking" Lincoln notes.
"Both revere Marcus Garvey, both received their primary incubation in the Depression years of the early 1930s, both have dietary restrictions which sets them apart from non-believers and both are distinctive in their physical appearance. Both the Rastafarians andthe Muslims consider their present expatriation to be temporary and both believe in a Black God," he writes.
All this may make sense to the academician, but to the religious faithful, it is an exercise in irrelevant rationalization. How else could they justify sustained belief in the divinity of a man considered dead by the uninitiated since Aug. 28, 1975?
"Those who say H.I.M. is dead are trying to shake our faith. But H.I.M. cannot die because H.I.M. is God. If H.I.M. was dead, why have they not shown us his grave?"
"Throughout history when men have worshipped false gods their religions have perished and so have the believers. But today we see Rastafari is growing stronger every day, going to the far ends of the earth to spread the message of liberation. We are here to testify that Jah Lives!"