I want to start by remembering His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie the First, on this the anniversary of his birth. And, I want to continue by discussing some things about His Majesty, the mysticism surrounding him and the implications for Rastafarianism and ultimately for the Black Church.
Having spent many years as a Rastafarian before returning to a deeper sense of Christian Faith, I did extensive study on Haile Selassie and on Ethiopia. Returning to the Faith of Christ through the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, my understanding of Haile Selassie and his witness became more profound. And, in honor of his birthday I would like to share some of those things.
Tafari Makonnen (translation: “the governor [i.e. ruler] who walks with God”) was named from birth, as if the angels had advised his parents to give him a name by which to live into his Solomonic and Davidic heritage. After fulfilling the basic requirements for learning the theology of this ancient church by learning to read and write Ge’ez, in 1900, at the age of eight, His Majesty was ordained a Deacon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. He thus spent his life, preparing for his role as King and Emperor, by growing in both the study of the Faith and of Geo-politics – in himself uniting heaven and earth (even if only in his thoughts and outlook).
When he was finally crowned as the 225th Emperor of Ethiopia in November of 1930, he was given the name “Haile Selassie” (Translation: “Might of the Trinity). He official given title was, “King of kings, Lord of lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Elect of God and Light of this World. His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I.” It is no wonder Rastafarians understand him to be divine.
Yet, having been there I share a different viewpoint that I think puts His Majesty in proper perspective. The key of which is found in returning to the wisdom of his birth name: “the ruler who walks with God.” If we start there, we begin to understand how “the ruler who walks with God,” became the “might of the Trinity.” And, as an instrument of the Trinity’s might, the ruler walked with God and bore witness to the might of the Gospel.
But, what does any of this have to do with the Black Church?
In the might of the Trinity, His Majesty’s ultimate defeat of Colonialism and the Italian invasion of Mussolini, and his various proclamations before both the League of Nations and the United Nations, proved the myth of African savagery and Black inferiority to be a lie. Moreover, his defense of Orthodoxy, Emperor Selassie stood as testimony against the the contradictions of Western Christendom that led to Christianity being labeled as the “White Man’s Religion.” Here was an undeniably African man, bearing witness to an orthodox Christian faith that stands in direct opposition to the injustice and oppression of Western Society.
If we study his speeches, we are presented with an interesting opportunity. When Dr. James H. Cone published his groundbreaking theological work, [amazon_link id=”1570751579″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]Black Theology & Black Power, his hope was to begin a shift for the Black Church away from the Western European theological framework which denied the (equal) humanity of Black people (and all other non-Whites). In the face of a theology that allowed for Slavery, Colonialism, White supremacy and exploitation, it is easy to see why a shift was needed. Yet, the resulting theology became non-foundational as there was a shift from Western theology to a void.
And with that void the plaguing questions remain, unable to be answered by countless pastors. Have you not asked them? Have you never wondered? What is your place in the kingdom of a God who denies the full measure of your humanity? We can ignore them and submerge ourselves in the beauty of our various forms of worship. But the void remains.
Yet, this is precisely the void I feel Haile Selassie was sent to fill. For in his witness we find the example of an authentically African Christian theology that speaks to the humanity of all people. Haile Selassie is the bridge, which takes us from the problematic theology that oppressed many and rejected others, to a Christian theology which embraces the disinherited[amazon_link id=”0807010294″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link] in the fulness of the Imago Dei.
Like the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey (himself a devout Christian) said, “Look to the East for the crowning of a Black king. He will be your messiah.” To take that to the Christological ends is overreaching. Yet, in many ways I can attest that Haile Selassie is a petit-messiah. For, had it not been for him I would likely not be Christian now. Yet, God sent Tafari Makonnen to rule on earth as his ancestors Solomon and David had ruled. The Trinity ordained for Ras Tafari to be His might and remind us of how Christ called for us to live. And this is a legacy bequeathed to the Black Church, and an opportunity to adapt a theological framework that would restore a broken people to wholeness. What do you think? Can you see His Majesty as a gift (and saint) to the disinherited, marginalized and minority people of the Western world?