CARIBBEAN CONTACT, Barbados, November 1978
Rasta, Christ and Marx
By Joseph Owens (Catholic priest and author of “Dread: The Rastafarians of Jamaica”) This excerpt is from a forthcoming book by the writer.
The question is often raised as to how Rasta relates to the progressive political forces in the West Indian communities in which it has taken root.
The question is quite vexatious since there are aspects of Rasta which definitely militate against any involvement with political movements here in the west, whether bourgeois or revolutionary. This is an area where Rasta must undertake some critical self-examination.
My own conviction is this: If Rasta is to be a truly effective force for building a new society, there must be a union of Rasta with other progressive forces which are also seeking to overcome the old system and to build a new human community.
There are some very real and very deep problems to be encountered, however, before any such union can take place. In Jamaica there is a vast gulf separating Rasta from some of the most promising progressive political forces. There is a profound lack of understanding and sometimes even hostility.
The situation in the eastern Caribbean does not seem quite so serious as in Jamaica, perhaps because Rasta is still small in numbers and because the struggle for political and economic liberation has been assisted by many people associated with the Rasta movement.
TRUE AND FALSE
It is my sincere contention that Rasta has much to learn from the progressive political front and, conversely, that the progressive political front has much to learn from Rasta. Both forces operate from what I would call revolutionary consciousness, although from two different modes of revolutionary consciousness, which I will explain later.
What I have called revolutionary consciousness is to be contrasted with counter- revolutionary or reactionary consciousness. Revolutionary consciousness is a true consciousness which is faithful to the depth of human potentiality and which strives to integrate man with himself, to reconcile man with man and to harmonise man with the natural world. Counter revolutionary consciousness is a false consciousness which alienates or estranges human nature from itself, which thrives on pitting man against man and which sets man and nature in opposition to one another, so that man becomes an agent of destruction rather than creation.
For Rasta, the key institutions of society which instil false consciousness in the people are Church and State, which are seen to operate in close alliance with one another. The bourgeois church and bourgeois state are seen by Rasta as irredeemable agents of reaction and alienation.
They are described also in geographical terms as Rome and Babylon: Rome being the centre of church power and Babylon the centre of state power. Further the same counter revolutionary duality is denominated ‘Jeezus” and “Caesar” - the false idols of church and state.
It should be clear from what I have said already that the Rasta critique of bourgeois society has much in common with that of the genuinely revolutionary political forces.
Where they differ, however, is in the sphere of human endeavour within which they most effectively operate. Rasta is obviously more effective in the realm of the arts, of philosophy, of psychology, of religion, and of culture.
The political forces are more effective in the realm of natural science and social science, of understanding political and economic systems and how to change them. In a word, Rasta is more “humanistic”, and the Marxists are more ‘scientific”. But this separation and opposition of humanities to sciences, although well established in western civilisation, is a false dichotomy and is deleterious to complete human integration.
But what do we really mean when we say that Rasta is a force for revolutionary consciousness?
If we look back upon the nine revelations of Rasta, we should perceive that each one of them hears within it the seed of revolution.
When Rasta announces that RASTA IS PROPHET, he is casting himself in the image of the most outspoken and iconoclastic personages of ancient times: the Hebrew prophets. He is proclaiming that the essential message of the Bible is the radical liberation of people from oppression and exploitation.
When Rasta reveals that G0D IS HUMAN. he is rejecting all the forms and images of divinity which alienate God from man, which divorce God from the world. He is voicing the truly scandalous truth that there can be no manifestation of divinity except within the most humble, the most earthly and the most fleshly.
When Rasta reveals that MAN IS DIVINE, he is refuting all the false philosophies which are designed to convince people that they are worthless miscreants and so fit only for servitude and menial labour. He is announcing to people that they must take full control of their lives and their societies and fashion them into forms worthy of the high dignity of human persons.
When Rasta reveals that LIFE OVERCOMES DEATH, he is rejecting the debilitating preoccupation with death and after-life which keeps most people concerned only with “saving their souls”. He calls them forth to the revolutionary task of recreating the universe in which we will live forever.
When Rasta reveals that NATURE IS SACRED, he is condemning the destructive energies of bourgeois science and technology, which have gotten completely outside sane human control. He is calling for a radical return to nature and to the chanelling of its energies for truly constructive human purposes.
When Rasta reveals that CULTURE IS RESTORED, he is spurning the pre-packaged domesticating culture of high fashion, consumer goods and mindless television. He is advocating a culture which truly belongs to the people, not one which is controlled by a small elite for their own avaricious purposes.
When Rasta reveals that JUDGMENT IS THREATENING, he is levelling his condemnations at the mega-machines of our society: big business, big government, big religion, big labour. He is announcing to them that the time of their criminal behaviour is coming to an end.
When Rasta reveals that ZION OVERCOMES BABYLON, he is stating that the great struggle in the world today is not just between individuals, some good and some bad, but between truly cosmic forces and institutions which are battling to the death. He is calling for all, no matter what their background, align themselves- with the forces of creation and to oppose the forces of destruction.
Finally, when Rasta reveals that VICTORY IS CERTAIN, he is peering deep into the heart of the universe and perceiving some inner dynamic which dictates that in the end good must win out over evil, creation must vanquish destruction, the world must become better not worse.
This is indeed the most radical and revolutionary of all the revelations, for it delivers humanity from the fatalism and pessimism which would justify complete acceptance of the worst and refusal to struggle at all.
Once we have a clear understanding of the distinction between revolutionary consciousness and reactionary consciousness, we can then proceed to subdivide each of them further into subjective and objective types of consciousness. This distinction may seem overly philosophical, but it can be easily explained.
Subjective consciousness is that which deals especially with the personal, psychological, inward side of the human being, while objective consciousness is that which deals with the communal, sociological, outward side of the human being.
Subjective consciousness makes man aware of the inner depths of human freedom, of the power of human emotions, of the infinite variety of human creativity.
Objective consciousness makes man aware of the expansive realms of human technological power, of the complexity and awesomeness of the external material universe, of the importance of political and economic social structures.
Subjective consciousness puts man in touch with the divine dimension of himself.
Objective consciousness puts man in touch with the cosmic dimension of himself.
The two are not opposed, in fact the two complement and balance one another. The purely subjective individual would be at a loss in dealing with the external world. The purely objective individual would be at a loss in dealing with his deep internal universe. To be complete, every human being must develop both sides of himself, subjective and objective. And he must develop these according to true consciousness, not false.
Rasta is aware of these different types of consciousness. What we have called false consciousness, reactionary consciousness, Rasta calls the alliance of church and state, “Rome” and “Babylon". Rasta sees church and state in the western world working to undermine true consciousness, working to alienate and estrange man from himself, man from man, man from the world, man from God. Rasta sees the process of estrangement and alienation on two fronts—one is objective: the state; the other is subjective: the church.
For Rasta, the state strives to subvert people’s true consciousness concerning the political, economic, social order, while the church undertakes to cloud the people’s proper understanding of the personal, psychological, divine side of themselves. The two work together in close alliance to keep the people in ignorance and under control.
Although Rasta does understand the two-fold nature of false consciousness, Rasta has so far developed an effective counter-attack only against the subjective type of false consciousness- That is why the Rasta critique of modern western society is most effective on the religious level. That is why it is most telling against religious institutions.
Despite the fact that the Rastas are capable of analysing state institutions and of rendering trenchant criticisms of colonialism and capitalism and imperialism, the basic posture of Rasta with regards to existing political and economic institutions remains withdrawal not confrontation.
Even though Rasta has a clear vision of the type of society which must be developed in order to render justice and right to every human being, Rasta does not see clearly the way to achieve such a society. Rasta counsels withdrawal, repatriation, abandonment of the western style of life.
Such counsel is understandable and justifiable to a point, but it is understandable also that other segments of the society will demand a more rigorous strategy for destroying the old system of exploitation and constructing the new society.
THE STRENGTH OF MARX
Thus, while Rasta has created a revolution in subjective consciousness and has moved far along the path to a true and genuine subjective consciousness, Rasta still needs assistance in arriving at a true objective consciousness. And this is where the progressive political forces of the society are found to be the strongest.
Thanks to the prophet who lived 100 years ago, a true humanist by the name of Karl Marx, there has developed a movement of true objective consciousness which is able to deal analytically and critically with political institutions, with economic forces, with social structures, with modem science and technology.
The movement which is founded on the analysis of Karl Marx goes under many different names and appears in many different forms, some true and some false to the original inspiration. The more faithful streams of the movement have made great strides in developing forms of social organisation which put human beings at peace with one another and in harmony with the material universe.
JOINING OF FORCES
Despite the great strides of those who analyse human history and human institutions with the subtle tools of marxian science, they have all too often tended to reduce the subjective, internal, divine side of the human to a mere shallow reflection of the objective, external and cosmic side of man. All too often they have discounted the spiritual and psychological depths of the individual and thus have short-changed society and limited the true development of humankind. It is precisely in this area that we find Rasta strong, for Rasta knows well the inner recesses of the human spirit, the vast domain of human creativity, the wide range of human feelings. If only this enormous reservoir of Rasta subjective wisdom could be yoked in tandem with the powerhouse of objective science which Marxism has developed, then indeed the potential of our future Caribbean society would far surpass that I which either of them can promise by itself alone
No one is saying that such a joining of forces is an easy task. The tensions and the oppositions are complex and deep, but the whole progress of human society is through tension and oppositions through the thrust of force and counterforce.
The task now is for each side to reach out and be humble enough to recognise the strengths of the other side and be willing to learn from the other side. As in any meeting of diverse forces, there will have to be give-and-take - not really compromise, but an evolution to ever higher planes of consciousness and action, where contradictions are resolved-
Both Rasta and Marx have in common their determination to challenge society at its roots, to call into question the very foundations of white western imperialist society.
They both have in common a complete and utter refusal to accommodate or “fit in” or be reconciled with such an inhumane system. But this also should be the posture of any person who calls himself Christian, although the common understanding of Christianity has too often distorted and clouded this radical aspect of our calling.