Tuesday, July 17, 2007

You don't know what you don't know

If you were to ask most people, including me, whether Bob Marley was a Christian, the initial answer would be an emphatic No. Worship of Haile Selassie as God is certainly not compatible with Christian belief.

But several websites tell another story.

From the Saint Pachomius Library:

Jamaica's famous Rastafarian poet and reggae musician spent most of his career on the fringes of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as a member of various syncretistic religious groups. Only on his deathbed, at the insistence of his Orthodox wife Rita, did he finally consent to baptism. Nevetheless, and in spite of numerous falls into wild and dissolute behaviour in the course of his life as a pop star, Marley is in my view a true Orthodox artist, both in that whatever is true and beautiful is Orthodox and in that his whole life was a journey toward the Orthodox Church and out of bondage to the passions. The remark of Mortimer Planno, one of the syncretist religious leaders whom Marley followed, that the musician was a "rude boy slowly transformed" is entirely accurate. Bob Marley's music is a testimonial to his "unseen warfare" (or, to use the Iyaric term, his "nyabinghi"), and the lyrics of many of his songs are pervaded with a deep and traditionally Orthodox Christian spirituality.

From GospelReggae:

Bob Marley was baptized into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church near the end of his life. His baptismal name is Berhane Selassie, "Light of the Trinity." He was given a full Ethiopian Orthodox funeral, in which other religious groups are not allowed to participate (though Rasta Twelve Tribesman Skill Cole tried), which is reserved exclusively to the Church's members.

From an Abuna Yesehaq interview:

[Haile] Selassie made a momentous trip to Jamaica in 1966, where for the first time he saw people - Rastafarians - worshipping him as God. The emperor was reportedly deeply dismayed. At a Kingston news conference he attempted to dispel the belief in his divinity with his response to a pointed question from Jamaican Minister of Education, Edward Allen. "I am a man, and man cannot worship man" are perhaps the most oft-quoted word the Emperor has ever said. Despite the famous disavowal, the Archbishop relates that many continued to maintain, "He is our God, even if he doesn't say he's God." In 1970, still distressed, the Emperor announced to [Abuna Yesehaq]: "There is a problem in Jamaica.... Please, help these people. They are misunderstanding, they do not understand our culture.... They need a church to be established and you are chosen to go." He arrived in Jamaica shortly thereafter and began building the first Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Kingston. Later, "Rasta churches" would dot the island, in fact, the whole English-speaking Caribbean, and various locations in North America, including New York and Toronto....

The major condition for baptism is to renounce the divinity of Haile Selassie. "That is number one," says the Archbishop. "It is the major thing." And it remains the primary point of departure separating the "Rasta Christians" from all other branches of Rastafari. Another philosophical chasm is the categorical unacceptability, on the part of many outside the Church, of embracing any form of Christianity, a "Babylon religion," one that preaches the same tenets as the "hypocrites" who brought Africans here as slaves - even if that Christianity, the oldest in the world, was founded by Africans with strong, Africanist teachings....

As many musicians in Jamaica have been Rastafarians, so many have been among the over 45,000 baptized into the church. Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, who later renounced the Church, are among them. But the most notable was Bob Marley who remained outside the Church for several years after Rita and the children converted, in 1972. Bob was under the spiritual guidance of the Archbishop but was baptized just a year before his death, after three aborted attempts to convert in Kingston. He backed out each time, says the Archbishop, after being threatened by other Rastas. Marley was finally baptized in the Ethiopian Church in New York where less resentments were less inflamed. The Archbishop christened him Berhane Selassie, "light of the Trinity".

Not many knew then of Bob's conversion, but just about everyone found out when the by-then invested Abuna Yesehaq, Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere (he was installed in 1979), presided over his state funeral, in 1981. Bob's family was successful in felling the customary line-up of profiteering Babylon clergy, insuring that the only rites said for Bob would be those of his officially adopted religion. The Church has also volunteered to bury other Rastas whose loved ones, insisting on burial by an institutional religion, could find not other to inter them: Jacob Miller and Garnett Silk are examples. Tosh, too, was buried by the Church, apparently at his family's insistence, but since he had "cursed and cursed and cursed" the Church, the Archbishop neither presided over nor attended the rites.


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