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A Sociological View of Rastafarianism

Organized religion is a duality between the religion and the church which represents it. Sometimes the representation of the religion is marred and flawed to those who view it because of the bureaucracy contained within. Unknown to those who gaze upon the dissolved morals and values of what is perceived to be the contradiction known as modern religion, it was never intended to be this way. Most religions started off as a sect, a minor detail on the fringes of the society it never wanted to represent. Rastfarianism is such a sect.

The differences between Rastafarianism and a normal “mainstream” religion are numberless, including: no set membership, no authoritative leader, no offices of authority, no trained clergy and no involvement with the world as a whole. Rastafarianism is based upon an underrepresented minority which needed hope in the face in utter demise. According to Max Weber, religion emerges to satisfy a social need. “In treating suffering as a symptom of odiousness in the eyes of gods and as a sign of secret guilt, religion has psychologically met a very general need (Weber 271).

Rastafarianism emerges in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica in the 1930’s to meet the needs of the poor, unskilled black Jamaicans who needed a hope. The social situation which was emerging in the 1930’s which called for this need was as follows. Jamaica was a commonwealth of the British Empire. It had recently, around 1884, received a write in clause to their constitution which stipulated if the new government did not succeed and the economic life of Jamaica were to suffer because of it, the political constitution would be amended or abolished to meet new conditions.

Black Jamaicans had a taste for power in their mouths and in 1938, this erupted in labor riots and violence. This act did nothing for their cause. It would still be 30 years until Jamaica received its independence. Blacks in Jamaica were the victims of social stratification which left them at the bottom rung of the ladder. They had menial jobs such as field worker or an attendant at the sugar plant, if they had jobs at all. The blacks were suffering as a people and as an organized group.

Ethopianism had been introduced to Jamaica in 1784 by George Liele, by adding it to the name of his Baptist church, hoping to graft itself onto the African religion of Jamaican slaves. But the movement to embody the Ethiopian ideology par excellence was the Back to Africa movement of Marcus Garvey (Barret 76). He saw African civilization as anterior to all others and used bible verses which were easily interpretable to portray Africans as the chosen people mentioned in the bible, as in Psalm 68: “Princes shall come out if Egypt and Ethiopia shall stretch forth his hands onto God” (Barret 78).

Garvey’s persistence culminated in the crowning of Ras Tafari as Negus of Ethiopia. He took the name Haile Selassie and added “King of Kings” and the “Lion in the Tribe of Judah”, placing himself in the legendary line of King Soloman, and therefore, in the same line as Jesus Christ of Roman Catholicism. Out of this came Rastafarianism which took over Jamaica at a time when it was “in a low tide economically and socially. Socially, people experienced the brunt of the Depression as well as disaster due to a devastating hurricane.

Politically, colonialism gripped the country and the future of the masses looked hopeless. Any doctrine which that promised a better hope and a better day was ripe for hearing” (Barret 84). Weber analyzed conditions such as these as a theodicy of suffering. “One can explain suffering and injustice by refrying to individual sin committed in former life, to the guilt of ancestors . . . to the wickedness of all people. As compensatory promised one can refer to hopes of the individual for a better life in the future of this world or to the for the successors, or to a better life in the hereafter” (Weber 275).

In other words, those who are disadvantaged in a situation (the poor, hopeless, black Jamaicans) will be rewarded. “The poor people have a decided advantage in the Rastas’ view, since they are forced to look into themselves and confront the basic reality of human existence – and only there can God be found” (Owens 173) Their negative situation will be turned into a positive one (transvaluation) because they are the truly righteous, or so they believed. Rastafarianism was more than a religion to the people of Jamaica, it was a hope.

It was their escape from the the rational everyday world. This theodicy of suffering, in which the underprivileged and underrepresented Jamaicans believed, was compensation for the deplorable state in which they found themselves. The Rastafarian way of living and their everyday activities began as a deviant social behavior, but rather was a routinization of the masses into one cohesive unit, following the same general creed under different principles. This point can be seen most specifically in the modern Rastafarian hairstyles.

In “traditional Rastafarianism” most Rastas do not cut their hair but allow it to grow naturally long matted strands or locks. These locks are in accordance with the Leviticus 21:5: They shall not make baldness upon their head (Johnson-Hill 25). But in today’s Rastafarianism, their are men who will not grow facial hair or locks in accordance to their position in the work place and in society, but still believe in the faith of and consider themselves a part of the Rastafarian religion.

This process of electing points on a subject in which a followers ideas converge with is called elective affinity, as coined by Max Weber. This elective affinity concerning Rastafarianism was spurred by charismatic prophets of the belief system such as Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie, and Samuel Brown. All of these men preached to the negatively privileged strata which existed in the Jamaican slums and the impoverished Jamaican parishes. The underprivileged strata became a status group in a sociological point of view when they selected Rastafarianism and Haile Selassie as their god.

This annunciation and promise led these impoverished blacks into a status group known as Rastafarians. This elective affinity between underprivileged Jamaicans and Rastafarians was seen most directly in a change in diet to follow “Kosher” food laws, a change in hair style, the use of a different language, and a the use of a holy weed; ganja. These highly visible symbols served as a solidification of a person’s elective affinity and a public statement of their beliefs.

To become a member of the Rastafarian status group was to embrace the lifestyle and the conceptual livity of a personal relationship with nature, in a pure organic way (Johnson-Hill 25). The Rastafarian lifestyle, at its early core, was based upon responses to social actions cast forth by the Jamaican bureaucracy. These actions exist on the guise of a messianic hope which is “generally known as Ethiopia or Africa” (Barret 117). The first reaction is aggression, which was exemplified by the social struggles for equality or even acknowledgment by the economically challenged island residents.

The second reaction is acceptance. This ambivalence toward the situation is more of a standstill than anything else. The act of accepting one’s own unfortunate situation negates the aggression and action of the previous step. This is where the Messianic values began to seep into the Rastafarian watershed. “With these people and this clear-cut fashion only among them and under other very particular conditions, the suffering of a people’s community, rather than the suffering of the individual, became the object of hope for religious salvation” (Weber 273).

Rastafarian men and women began to forget their own individual struggles and rely on the preaching from Haile Selassie to comfort them as a group. Individuality is looked down upon in the Rastafarian religion. The status group or strata will suffer as a whole, not as individual pieces of a puzzle. “Every Rastafarian considers himself an authoritative spokesman for Selassie. It is consequently unthinkable that one of the brethren should assume special prerogatives in speaking for the Emperor” (Owens 43). The third and final response to social action by Rastafarians is avoidance.

This act is predominated by the view that Jamaica is Babylon and Ethiopia is Zion. This metaphor implying hopelessness in Jamaica acts very much, in Marxian terminology, as an opiate. This outlook on everyday life does not produce action, rather it reduces it. Another example of this can be seen economically.

“The Rastafarians generally represent the lowest segment of the Jamaican social class . . . This level of Jamaican society represents the largest body on unemployed and underemployed and the greatest number of unemployables . ” (Barret 115). This fact is well known among the Rastafarians and it is partially why many are in the religion, acceptance into a social class which is higher than their own. They have mostly given up on employment besides that of home produced items which are pawned to tourists or others within the Rastafarian movement. Their is no motivation to produce economically because most of the industry within Jamaica during the early Rastafarian period was controlled by the British land owners.

Working for these British men would have been a direct violation of their religious creed; “The white person is inferior to the black person” (Barret 104) and “The Black person is the reincarnation of ancient Israel, who, at the hand of the White person, has been in exile to Jamaica” (Barret 104). This ties into Weber’s Theodicy of Suffering because to suffer economically is to suffer through all aspects of one’s life. But, many times, as previously illustrated, an ambivalence to end suffering leave’s one still in the same peculiar situation. Without a motive to change, there is not change in a culture’s motives.

So, the early Rastafarian’s suffered not from a theodicy of suffering which was merely and only forced upon them by the white Jamaican bureaucracy; but rather a self- imposed and self-induced level of their suffering. This way of viewing Rastafarian all changed as time passed. Social strata are decisive for the development of a religion (Weber 282) and as the social strata which embodies this religion began to change, the religion changed proportionately with it. This can be seen in contrasting the previous three social reactions just stated: aggression, acceptance and avoidance.

As the general body of Rastafarianism began to grow old and pass away, so did many of their ideas and rationality’s concerning the religion in which they were a part. These views were handed down to the new, younger members of the Rastafarian religion and updated substantially to concur with the new time period and the new state of Rastafarians in Jamaica. Largely, there is no need for one to use aggression to prove equality in Jamaica. The modern Rastafarian, rather is a symbol of the Jamaican lifestyle and one can almost mistakenly assume all Jamaicans embody the Rastafarian way of thinking and lifestyle.

The newly independent Jamaica uses aspects of the traditional Rastafarian to promote its tourism industry: such as the reggae music which originally symbolized the suffering of black Jamaicans, the dread locks which represented the I-tal way of organic living and the artifacts and cultural productions of such Rastafarian artisans. Rastafarians no longer accept their status as a constant; an unchanging fact which merely misrepresents them in popular culture. They have began to work on their economic status within the Jamaican community.

Rastafarians now occupy enviable positions in Jamaica. There are Rasta physicians, pharmacists, professors, journalists, pilots, teachers . . . to name only a few of their trades and professions” (Barret 243). They are willing to educate their children to become productive citizens of the country, which is evident in the formation of Rasta primary and secondary schools and the possibility of a Rasta university within Jamaica. Rastafarians now have control over their own destiny within the scope of mass media and their ultimate portrayal.

With the advent of educated and world minded Rastafarians, the Rastafarian movement has proliferated out of Jamaica and into the mainstream of the world, including both the United States and England. The final large change concerning Rastafarians is avoidance. Instead of avoiding the problems in Jamaica and praying for a magical repatriation to Ethiopia, they have first decided to repair the problems which exist in Jamaica before they leave for Zion. This new brethren is focused on change and one way they have decided to accomplish this is through political action. “Rastafarians are traditionally apolitical; they do not vote.

Their word for politics is politricks, which sums up their perception of the political game” (Barret 220). With the election of a pro Rastafarian prime minister, Michael Manley, Rastafarians were encouraged to use their constitutional rights and vote. There is no way of telling how many Rastafarians voted or continue to vote, but their role in Jamaican culture requires them to be addressed and noticed. The act of being spoken to and about in a public forum is just aspect in which indirectly they have traversed out of the avoidance stage. Rastafarians also no longer avoid the media. Rather, they embrace it and use it to their advantage.

This is evident is the many quotes and passages contained within Leonard Barret’s book and the relative ease of access he obtained many on these passages. The Rastafarian culture is moving toward the future, and as Weber stated, changing with the social strata, which is changing with the times. It can then be inferred Rastafarianism is a constantly updated and evolving entity, modernizing as the world does so as well. But this evolving modern entity did not always keeps its modernity defined. Many of the actions of Rastafarianism worked against modernity and favored a complete stand still in all actions of life.

In effect, the pain of the poor black Jamaica strata directly led into a form of ambivalence which militated against social and economic change; in essence, the status group of Rastafarians and their beliefs acted as an opiate against socioeconomic change. “Religion is the opium of the people” (Marx 54). This opium like quality leads directly into a state of false consciousness, which ties in directly with Weber’s theodicy of suffering. Both of these militate against socieconomic change by giving a check of approval to a negative situation. In this way, Marx and Weber are showing the flaws in the Rastafarian system.

The inherent flaw of giving false hope or false consciousness to a people based on a system (Rastafarian) which at its base complies with stagnant situations and life styles. At the same time, Marxism can be interpreted as a direct conflict with itself. The Rastafarian movement occupies not only an opiate status, but a status of opposition as well. The Rastafarian movement was founded originally as an opposition to the bureaucratic ways of the ruling class. The religion modeled greatly an American democratic way of thinking: by the people for the people. The people are the underrepresented and under appreciated blacks of Jamaica.

In comparison with a Weberian sociological thought process, they both agree upon Rastafarian as basically an evolution. This plays more into Marx’s favor because of the direct correlation between themselves. Like the Rastafarian evolution, in which they retreated on many of their former beliefs and creeds, Marx also did the same according to the time he was writing in. So, a direct comparison can be made through the evolution of Marx and Rastafarianism; both occur because of the rise of modernity and culture around them, directly effecting the person or group in question.

Marx and Weber also collide in beliefs on the idea of theodicy of suffering. Weber believed religion emerges to fulfill a social need. The poor, black, Jamaicans needed hope, and with their economic status, suffering was a major part. Taken on a face value then, the Jamaican culture can be divided into two distinct classes: theodicy of suffering and theodicy of good fortune. The former group, those who indirectly believe in a theodicy of suffering, are alienated from the latter group. Within the suffering group, there is alienation among members due to separation from product.

The product, in this case, is their religion. Now all of the members of the Rastafarian status group belong to Rastafarianism as a whole, but there are sects within the sect, which are different from each other. For an example, the emergence of the uptown Rasta which differs in belief system from Rastafarianism as a whole. The alienation comes in the fact that the people, not as one unified group, but as a large organization of individuals are single entities and none speak for the religion. Criticism of this can be found in a previously mentioned Joseph Owens quote (see page four, first paragraph).

Although each member is a spokesman for Selassie, is unthinkable to assume each member of the brethren might have something different to say? This leads to alienation among those within the same sect. The previously stated belief contrasts with a Weberian point of view as well. In a Marxian view of thought, the poor should try to revolt against their ruling bureaucracy. “This appropriation is further determined by the manner in which it must be effected. It can only be effected through a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can again only be a universal one, and through a revolution . ” (Marx 192). There is a flaw under the question: how can a society revolt through Marxism and still be prone against change, an opiate in Marxian view, to their own standing within the community? Karl Marx would see this as a complete oxymoron. Rastafarianism should benefit the social group, not allow it to stop progression and merely graze the lips of those who chose it, giving them a short and unsatisfying taste of what is available to them. This yearning for more should lead the people into a full economic and political revolt against this bourgeoisie.

While relatively similar to a Marxian point of view, Durkheimian sociology sees Rastafarianism as a social entity. This religion was originally associated as Jamaican poor and the term Rasta and poor, black Jamaican could be used interchangeable. And with this association, Rastafarianism emerged to regulate the desires of the Jamaican poor. It brought about a solidarity among the lowest status class which served as a jumping point into embracing their situations. Thus, the religion is inseparable from the groups which contain it.

This occupies the ideas of Weber in that if the religion is inseparable from the groups which contain it, then, the religion will indirectly evolve as the group evolves. This basically complies with the Weberian point of view that religious beliefs change along with the strata which embody them. Also, if Rastafarianism is a social entity, it therefore must have risen out of the need for a social set of values, complying with the Weberian ideal of religion emerging to satisfy a social need. This Durkheimian point of view also crosses paths with the views of Karl Marx.

If religion brings about solidarity among a status group which happens to be underprivileged, revolution is a possible following steps. One person may revolt, but one needs masses along the same ideals to successfully revolt. By integrating society, one brings the society or group on the same consciousness, although it may be a false consciousness. No matter rational or irrational, the motives exist and can be accomplished with aid of a charismatic prophet, in this case, Marcus Garvey or Samuel Brown. To update this idea, there is a popular t-shirt which states “Never underestimate stupid people in large groups.

The same could be applied to a Marxian and Durkheimian point of view. Their t-shirt might say “Never underestimate the power of alienated oppressed on the same intellectual level. ” Durkheim and Weber do disagree on some levels. One of them being the role of individuality within religion. A Durkheimian point of view toward individuality could not characterize the Rastafarian movement because it believes one should embrace all the exists, but do not include each other. This directly violates the Rastafarian’s belief in an I-n-I mentality.

This implies a “three-fold relationship between any individual self, Jah [God], and other selves” (Johnson-Hill 23). Max Weber sees religion as a unification of a people, which is evident in his distinction between strata and status. Rastafarianism is a status group, individuality is left behind at the strata before seemingly advancing into a higher level of consciousness, complete with its own symbols, language and customs, especially marijuana usage. Although the beliefs of a religion change, the essence of the religion does not. This is supported by Weber with the idea that changes in a decisive stratum lead to a change of beliefs.

This is opposed by Durkheim stating a religion as a whole has lasted because it performs a social function; it integrates those involved within it. The falsity is what people believe. So, if people change, the religion changes with the people, not necessarily minor beliefs within it. It is a cycle which includes the transfer of old gods to new gods, completely changing the religion with society. Rastafarianism has not faded away, and in fact has spread its brethren among many areas of the world. “The Rastafarian movement is no longer a mere revolutionary movement; it has become a part of the establishment, a part of officialdom” (Barret 245).

Rastafarianism may have started on the fringes of Jamaican society, but it now a representation of what it considered hell. In terms of an outsider, Jamaica is no longer Babylon, it is now Rastafaria, a step on the way to utopian Zion. Rastafarianism is now an integration of all of Jamaican society rather that just one social strata. Its changes have moved along with the changes of Jamaica as a nation. The people of Jamaica are interchangeable with Rastafarianism. It is ironic which a group so hating of their own environment would become such a force as to represent it to the world. Rastafarianism is truly by the people, for the people.

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