I was listening to some Bob Marley the other day and was struck by a line in his song ‘Get Up Stand Up’: ‘Almighty God is a living man’. He was not of course referring to Jesus but to Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia who was still alive when ‘Get Up Stand Up’ was recorded in 1973. Rastafarians like Marley believed the Emperor would redeem African-descended Jamaicans and restore them to Africa from where their ancestors had been taken.
Rastafarians saw and still see themselves as modern day Israelites, like those in the Bible stories of Egyptian slavery and Babylonian captivity. Their perspective is reflected in songs like ‘Exodus’, by Marley, ‘The Israelites’ (Desmond Dekker) and ‘Rivers Of Babylon’ (The Melodians). Selassie himself denied being divine (‘why do you call me good, when only God is good?’) but that didn’t stop those who believed in him from making a saviour god of him. When, inevitably, he died (in 1975), some Rastas left the movement while others reinterpreted his role:
Some Rastas believed that Selassie did not really die and that claims to the contrary were Western misinformation… Another perspective within Rastafari acknowledged that Haile Selassie’s body had perished, but claimed that his inner essence survived as a spiritual force. A third response within the Rastafari community was that Selassie’s death was inconsequential as he had only been a “personification” of Jah rather than Jah himself.
It all sounds rather familiar doesn’t it? The saviour didn’t really die/his inner essence survived/his death was inconsequential. Where have we heard all that before?
This put me in mind of a cult that for a long time rivalled that of Christianity. Indeed, in the early days of Jesus belief, it boasted more members, all of them men. Unlike Christianity and Rastafari, this cult believed in a saviour whom adherents knew had never existed as a human on Earth. Mithras was a celestial being whose salvific work, which involved the symbolic slaughter of a bull, was carried out in the heavenly realm:
Mithras is the guide of souls which he leads from the earthly life into which they had fallen back up to the light from which they issued… It was not only from the religions and the wisdom of Orientals and Egyptians, even less from Christianity, that the notion that life on earth was merely a transition to a higher life was derived by the Romans. Their own anguish and the awareness of senescence made it plain enough that earthly existence was all hardship and bitterness. Mithras-worship became one, and perhaps the most significant, of the religions of redemption in declining paganism. (Jacob Burckhkart)
Eventually, in the fourth century, Christians suppressed Mithraism to the extent that its adherents, along with its ritualistic texts, were wiped from history. Only its deserted, underground temples remained.
What both examples tell us – and their are hundreds more – is that people have always been willing and eager to make gods of revered figures, both real and imagined. They are ready to believe them capable of impossible feats and to trust in them for whatever form of redemption they feel in need of. There can be no doubt Jesus belief sprang from this same sort of wishful thinking; Jesus being cast as a divine figure with the power to lead believers into the light and/or the promised land of eternal life. It hardly matters whether he existed or not. Like Mithras, an imaginary/imagined figure could just as easily fulfil the role as a real person, like Selassie, who had others’ unrealistic expectations thrust upon him.