January 30, 2005
Musings By Jim Burklo
The Bible breathes and speaks afresh every day. But its life depends on ours. When we use it creatively, interpret it with inspiration, it can speak for us and to us, and in the process more light may shine from the scripture. The Bible is for us -- not us for it. It is full of finished as well as raw material that we can recycle endlessly, to use its words and images to express our deepest experiences.
Nobody has let the Bible speak in a more creative and expressive manner than the Rastafarians, an obscure group of people from the mountains of Jamaica. The Rasta expression of Christianity is a unique one, and it might never have drawn much attention except for the amazing legacy of music that has come out of it -- Reggae, made most famous by Bob Marley and his band, the Wailers. I'm always amazed at how youngsters continue to appreciate Marley's music. My 18 year old daughter has a full length poster of Bob Marley in her apartment, and believe me, it isn't there because her dad likes the music! Young people are as fond of Bob Marley and the Rastafarian music tradition as people were in my generation. Marley has been dead for a couple of decades -- he died young of cancer -- but the love of his music endures.
And it turns out that reggae music, particularly that of Bob Marley, is a sort of Bible study in song. The music is full of timeless biblical references.
Jamaica was populated by a lot of black slaves, and British missionaries brought Christianity to them. One group of black people, living in the remote mountains of the island, and the poorest people of Jamaica, developed their own unique interpretation of the Christian religion. They were influenced by the ideas of Marcus Garvey, an American black leader in the years after the Civil War. Garvey was an exponent of Pan-Africanism -- the idea that blacks would never get justice it in America, and thus should move back to Africa Pan Africanism was also laden with a sense of racial pride -- that in fact the black people of Africa were the cradle of world civilization. The Jamaican followers of this emerging version of Christianity called themselves Rastafarians. The name came from Haile Salassie -- the last king of Ethiopia -- who was formally known as Ras Tafari. The Rastafarians believed that the real home of the Christian religion was Ethiopia, and that Ethiopia was their promised land. They came to believe that Haile Selassie was God in the flesh -- a living avatar of the Christ, so to speak.
In this belief system, the Rastas found a lot of support in the Bible. 1 Kings chapter 4 tells the story of the Queen of Sheba, or Ethiopia, coming to visit King Solomon in Israel. She came to learn from him, since his reputation for wisdom had spread far and wide. She was impressed with him, and of course the lecherous King Solomon was just as interested in her, for other reasons. From the ensuing liason, the royal line of Ras Tafari was born. Haile Selassie was thought by Ethiopians to be a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He was referred to with the honorific of Lion of Judah-- an image found in Genesis chapter 49: 9 and elsewhere.... he was thought to be the true steward of the historic Judeo-Christian tradition. Many of the albums of Bob Marley's music were decorated with the lion of Judah image, and also with the red, yellow, and green of the Ethiopian flag.
The albums also have Coptic-style lettering on them, as well -- hinting at the Coptic Church of Ethiopia, one of the most ancient branches of the church. The Ethiopian language and Bible are in Coptic lettering, also used by the Egyptian Christians and other groups in the Near East. According to Acts chapter 8, a eunuch, the treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia, rode his chariot up to Jerusalem. Ethiopians were still coming to Israel for Passover and for other occasions to steep themselves in its culture and spirituality. This Eunuch met up with the apostle Philip, who converted him to Christianity. The legend is that the eunuch returned to Ethiopia and founded the church there, which lives on to this day-- over 40 million Ethiopians belong to it. I had the privilege this past summer of meeting the Ethiopian pope -- the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. A black man with a white robe and white silk turban, a long grey beard, and the most incredible solid gold cross in his hand. A very charming and learned fellow. When some Rastafarians came to Ethiopia a few decades ago, Haile Selassie and the church officials wanted nothing to do with them -- the Ethiopians thought the Rastafarians, with their dreadlocks and their home-grown religious ideas, were nuts! The Ethiopians have a very ancient, highly cultured and nuanced and artistically rich religious tradition that is quite distinct from the free-form tunes of the Rastafarians.
But therein lies the magic of how the Rastas have made use of the Bible and Christian tradition. A group of descendants of slaves, oppressed by the racial politics and economic inequalities in Jamaica, found great meaning and hope in the Bible. They looked at the story of the exiles of Israel in Egypt and Babylon, and found the image to describe being taken from Africa as slaves in the Americas. They saw themselves as Jah people -- the people of Jah, or Yahweh, bound to take action to get the justice they deserved, to flee from slavery of the body and the mind. To get liberation from Babylon, which Rastas use as the name for the oppressive social and economic order under which they have been forced to live. Hence Marley's song, Exodus:
Exodus-- movement of Jah people
Open your eyes, look within
Are you satisfied with the life you're living
We know where we're going, we know where we're from
we live in Babylon -- we're going to our fatherland
The song blends the land of Egypt with the land of Babylon-- but the idea is the same. In another song, Marley quotes from Psalm 137, in which the people of Israel are described as being asked to sing the songs of their homeland to the rulers of Babylon.
By the rivers of Babylon
There is a town
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion.
And the wicked carried us away, captivity,
Required from us a song.
How can we sing King Alpha's song
In a strange land?
Another song is called "Babylon System" -- a way of describing the whole political and economic system that made blacks into second-class citizens. Implicit in the Rasta lyrics is the expectation of the book of Revelation chapter 18, which also makes Babylon a metaphor for worldly oppression: "Fallen, fallen, is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons---"
But to get Babylon to fall required not just passive belief, but forthright action. The Bible for Bob Marley was not some book that had all the answers, and that just predicted how God would solve all his problems for him. The Bible for Marley and the Rastas was full of inspiration to take matters into their own hands. Salvation required that people do more than just wait for God to save them -- it required you to get up and stand up.
Get up stand up stand up for your rights
Get up stand up don't give up the fight.....
Most people think great God will come down from the sky
Take away everything and make everybody feel high
If you know what life is worth you will look for yours on earth
Now that you see the light, stand up for your rights
And in the song Exodus, Marley paraphrases Moses from Exodus chapter 14:10, when the people of Israel complain that they should have stayed in slavery in Egypt instead of suffering in the Sinai. "Are you satisfied with the life you're living?" the song asks -- Time to move -- movement of Jah people -- to the promised land. Gotta take action, get moving...
In the song "Cornerstone", there is the implication that the black race has been rejected, but will one day be triumphant. The song finds meaning in the phrase from Psalm 118 that the "The stone that the builder refused -- will always be the head cornerstone". Jesus described himself as this rejected stone that becomes the cornerstone in Matthew chapter 21: 42.
Rastas are well-known for their dreadlocked hair, for which they turn to the Bible for support, as well -- Leviticus 21:5 says that Jewish men should not cut their curly forelocks. And Rastas are also known for their fondness for homegrown Jamaican marijuana, for which they also find support in Exodus 10: 12 which specifies that the people of Israel may eat every herb of the land. These are pretty far-fetched biblical rationales, showing that it is very possible to go way too far in using the scripture for one's own ends!
The Rastafarians and the music of Bob Marley preach a message of love, of universal human brother and sisterhood, and of active liberation from oppression. No wonder that kids love this music. No wonder that I saw posters for Rasta music concerts on the Hopi Indian Reservation-- Native Americans and and native Hawaiians are especially fond of Marley's legacy, I've learned. It's a message delivered in the language and imagery of the Bible. If Bob Marley could do it, and even get carried away with it at times, so can we! May we express our hopes and good intentions also using the gift of scripture, bringing it alive in our own way and for our own best purposes. Amen!