Rastafarians and Quakers

by Brendan I. Koerner

I'm usually averse to attending egghead confabs, but I'd certainly make an exception for the upcoming Inaugural Rastafari Studies Conference, which will mark a half-century since the publication of the first academic treatise on the religion. Like all young faiths that manage to outlive their founders' generations, Rastafari is now grappling with important questions regarding its future course. For instance, how does a messianic religion deal with inconvenient historical realities? And can a faith that once rejected human government as hopelessly wicked ever settle into a peaceful symbiosis with existing institutions?

If there's a model for the Rastafari movement's future, it may be the Quakers--a comparison first made in the classic 1966 paper The Rastafarian Brethren of Jamaica:

The early Quakers were not looked at with more misgivings by a society which saw them as coming "from the very rabble and dregs of the people," as individuals who differentiated themselves from more sober citizens by their odd appearance, the peculiar nature of their devotions, and their habit of quaking and trembling when filled with the "spirit." Seventeenth-century Quakers, like present-day Rastafarians, did not modify their beliefs when confronted by a hostile society, often used highly abusive language, and employed similar martial metaphors of pitching tents, drawing swords, and making ready for battle against the enemy. Rastamen would have understood George Fox's concern in walking around Licthtfield shouting at the top of his voice, "Woe to the bloody city!"

A few hundred years later, of course, the Quakers are anything but bizarre--in fact, they count among their ranks a fair number of elites (Richard Nixon!), and the image of the friendly Quaker has become an American archetype.

I think it'll take quite some time before a major American university adopts a Rastafari mascot. (Okay, okay, it'll never happen.) But Rastafari has already gotten over the hump by surviving well past Haile Selassie's rather anti-climactic demise. The question now is whether its adherents want to continue to define themselves as perpetual outsiders, or revise their theology to build the proverbial bigger tent.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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