The three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) get the bulk of the attention in North American media. This is partially due to their immense familiarity and power in the world, partially due to number of believers in North America, and partially due to the fact that they stem from a common root. As a result, the way we think of religion as a concept tends to be coloured by those particular traditions. It is important to note that besides these three, their bizarre offshots (which would include Mormonism, Baha’i, Jehova’s Witnesses, and others), and the so-called “Eastern” religions (chiefly Hinduism and Buddhism), there are a number of religions that are seemingly created uniquely, or at least which weave together a number of other traditions into a new narrative.
Religions like these allow us to examine the way in which humans are able to craft new creation mythologies and rites of worship, and give us a clue into how the older traditions may have gotten their start. Aside from Scientology, which gained its notoriety by systematically making bizarre and grandiose claims while defrauding its adherents of their lives and human rights (which is, I realize, a fair cop for pretty much any religion) and Vodun, which has been mischaracterized and caricatured by Christians into something far more bizarre than anything anyone actually practices, this phenomenon of a completely new religion is probably no better and popularly exemplified than it is by Rastafari*.
Rastafari is a somewhat bizarre patchwork of beliefs, stitching together Christianity, pre-Christian Judaism, African mysticism, post-slavery Afrocentric thought, and the worship of a former political leader in Ethiopia. As a general movement it is mostly harmless, as the main underlying philosophy is an existential exploration of man’s relationship with the divine and with other human beings, often fueled by smoking marijuana. It is, interestingly, difficult to divorce Rastafari from its roots deep within post-slavery Jamaican culture. As such, it is hard to tell where Rastafari ends and Jamaican culture begins, which makes this issue far more interesting:
On November 27th, 2010, protesters in Sacramento, CA gathered outside musical artist Capleton’s reggae-dancehall concert to oppose the violent gay-bashing ideas his lyrics promote. This wasn’t the first protest against reggae artists calling for violent homophobic acts in their music. Other reggae artists criticized and boycotted over the last decade for anti-homosexual lyrics include Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Sizzla, Elephant Man, T.O.K., Bounty Killa and Vybz Kartel.
A major leader in the campaign against the homophobia found in dancehall music (the reggae spinoff popular in United States and western Europe) is Stop Murder Music, who eventually initiated the “Reggae Compassionate Act”. This contract requires artists who sign it to preclude all homophobic sentiment from their future music and to vow against further reproductions of prior songs which promoted intolerance or killing of gay individuals—thus ensuring that their music will no longer be subject to boycott. The original problem that lingers past these artist’s vows of free-but-destructive-speech abstinence, however, is the defense originally used to justify the lyrics: Homophobia is a cultural, even religious value.
One of the knotty problems when considering the intersection between religion and homophobia (and to anyone who wants to claim that “homophobia” just means “fear of gay people” and therefore doesn’t apply to their particular gay-bashing agenda, please take your pedantry and shove it somewhere uncomfortable – adults are talking) is that there is a real chicken-egg conundrum to resolve. Are people homophobic because their religion instructs them to be so, or does a homophobic society spawn a homophobic religion?
Having been to the Caribbean a handful of times, and having half of my family members being of Caribbean extract, I can claim a bit of familiarity with the culture. As with any group of people among whom machismo and “manliness” is considered a high virtue, homophobia is endemic. After all, what greater abdication of the rightful role of a man could there be than mincing around like a goddamn fairy? Add to this male-centred mentality the extreme anti-gay sentiment of colonial Britain and you have a culture that is richly steeped in the hatred and persecution of gay men (and it is predominantly men – Caribbean lesbians seem to by and large escape the kind of hatred they experience in places like South Africa and the Congo).
It is mostly inevitable that a religion that comes from such a background is going to have homophobic elements. I say mostly inevitable because, by a strict interpretation of Rastafari, there’s really no doctrinal reason why homosexuality is wrong – to get there, one must invoke the Old and New Testaments. Additionally, considering that the reggae prophets of Rastafari (Desmond Decker, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley) chose to spend their time concerned with uplifting the human spirit and avoiding hatred, the focus of contemporary reggae and dancehall music on gay hatred seems like the result of foreign influences rather than something that sprung through the religion itself.
As with the anti-gay movement in Uganda, Iran’s bizarre treatment of its homosexual population, and the simmering hatred of gay people (again, predominantly men) here in North America, this intrusion of homophobia into the cultural expression of Rastafari seems to be the pre-existing anti-gay sentiment of adherents being masked as a religious tenet. Of course this kind of hatred tends to be self-feeding as people come to sincerely believe that YahwAlladdha (or Jah, as the case may be) cares more about where your neighbour puts his penis than He does about you specifically inciting violence against one of His creations.
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*I must insist that people remove the term “Rastafarianism” from their vocabulary – the doctrine explicitly rejects “isms”, and even if you don’t care if they don’t think they’re an “ism”, Rastas find such classification offensive. You don’t call Jews “Heebs” simply because they are descended from ancient Hebrews – there’s no need to be unnecessarily offensive.