July 23 – Birthday of Haile Selassie

Posted on July 23, 2015

Did you know that a man who was born and died in Ethiopia – a man who was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian all his life – a man of modern times, not someone whose birth and death are shrouded by thousands of years and by conflicting legends – inspired a new religion in Jamaica?

Haile Selassie, who served as first regent and then emperor of Ethiopia, is considered in the Rastafari religion to be God incarnate, basically the messiah, the returned Jesus!

Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael on this date in 1892. The name of the religion Rastafari comes from combining the title Ras (which basically means “Duke” or “Head” or even “Chief”) with the name Tafari – in other words, the religion is named for Selassie's pre-coronation name.

Among non-Rastafari, Selassie has a very mixed reputation. Some people and historians tout accomplishments – such as a stirring speech to the League of Nations, asking the countries of the world not to recognize fascist Italy's shameful conquest of Ethiopia and use of chemical weapons; establishment of schools and a university; road-building and other public works. Other peoples and historians slam Selassie as a power-hungry, tradition-bound autocrat. A neutral view seems to indicate that he ruled with alternating charm and harshness, with both compassion and cruelty.

But for more than one million Rastafari people worldwide, Selassie is The One who will (they claim) lead the righteous into creating a perfect world called Zion. Some Rastafari think that Selassie's 1975 death was just a hoax; God cannot die, some claim; he lives in a monastery, some say, and will return to liberate his followers, vanquish evil, and restore his creation.

Zion, the promised land, is seen as Ethiopia, the land in which human beings first lived. Many Rastafari people thought that they should move to Ethiopia – something they saw as a return to the promised land, something they called “repatriation” – and in 1961 Rastafari leaders traveled to Ethiopia to meet with Selassie about this matter. He gave assurances but later told Jamaicans that they should not emigrate to Ethiopia until they had liberated the people of Jamaica. This advice became “liberation before repatriation.”

Selassie visited Jamaica in 1966, and one hundred thousand Rastafari came to the airport to see their messiah with their own eyes. So many people rushed the tarmac that Selassie didn't come down the steps from the plane. A Rasta leader entered the plane and then came out and announced, “
The Emperor has instructed me to tell you to be calm. Step back and let the Emperor land."

Jamaican leaders were apparently surprised that Selassie, who was himself a Christian, didn't try to convince the Rastafari that he wasn't the returned Jesus. My guess is that he didn't mind the adulation one bit.

Here are a few things Rastafari is known for:

  • The spiritual use of cannabis, or marijuana
  • Reggae musician Bob Marley, who was a believer who actively preached Rastafari
  • Dreadlocks
  • Red, gold, and green, the colors of the Ethiopian flag

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