Theology and ganja

Revd Ernle Gordon
Jamaica Observer
Saturday, August 25, 2001


WE live in very interesting times, especially as we begin to examine the theological implications of the decriminalisation of ganja (cannabis) and what are theological interpretations with regard to ganja being utilised as part of the sacramental rites of the Rastafarian experience. The society, which is in transition, requires religious people who are willing to accept the “otherness”, to learn to live with the differences, to be more inclusive and tolerant, because we live in a Caribbean civilisation that is multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious. When we consider the complex nature of religious practices in Jamaica, there will be reservations and serious arguments concerning the validity of ganja being seen as the outward sign of a sacrament.

Therefore, let me begin to tease the intellect of church people, in terms of opening up the debate on sacramental theology and ganja.

What are the teachings of Anglicans concerning the sacraments?

In order to be concrete, I will quote from the Catechism, which is found in the Book of Common Prayer, (Province of the West Indies, pages 409-411).


“The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”


“Grace is God’s favour towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”

The two great sacraments of the gospels

“The two great sacraments given by Christ to His Church, as recorded in the gospels, are Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.”

There has not been enough theological dialogue between the Rastafarians and the Christians to ascertain if the Rastafarians interpret the use of ganja in the same way as Anglicans. Let me begin by stating that, according to the doctrine of creation, God saw everything that He made and it was very good (Genesis 1:31). Therefore, I am agreeing with many anthropologists, who assert that, in the economy of the divine, God created plants like ganja, to be used by our ancestors in their religious rituals about 10,000 years ago. In terms of the historical beginnings of the Eucharist in Christianity, God gave us grapes, corn, and oranges to make wine. He also provided us with bread which can come from wheat, corn, banana and cassava. It is true that whether you are Taino (Arawak) or American Indian, rituals do provide a link with the divine and the human, but we do not know if the Rastafarians believe that ganja, which is the outward sign, conveys the grace of God.

I enjoy the interpretation of HS Hooke, who was professor emeritus of Old Testament Studies at London University in 1962, who wrote an excellent article on the religious institutions of Israel. He described “ritual” as the means by which the early Hebrews discovered a method of controlling their environment and securing the prosperity of their communities. Hooke admitted that every situation demanded some form of ritual and one such popular occasion was the Babylonian New Year Festival. Rituals are sacramental in nature because they tend to manifest the association (intimacy) of the human with the divine.

Some Christians say that ganja may have had longer usage in terms of early settlers but the use of the bread and the wine in the Christian/Jewish tradition has a longer divine connection. Let us start the dialogue and look at the Old Testament in terms of the sacrament, with particular reference to the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or the Mass.

Longevity, authenticity of ritual

Since it is being suggested by many Christians that ganja does not have any linkage with Yahweh (Allah, Jah), let us look at how the Hebrews saw the ritual of the Feast of Atonement. The priest entered the Holy of Holies in the temple, and offered incense; the sprinkling of goat’s blood was done, and the scapegoat was dispatched to the wilderness. How does a goat figure in the divine feast? This shows that we have to be careful how we argue about the use of ganja or wine (that has alcohol) in the rituals. St Paul uses this analogy of the Day of Atonement very well in the Epistle to the Ephesians and also in Hebrews. The Jewish Feast of Weeks, which reflected the end of the grain harvest, on the 50th day, was given the name, “Pentecost” by the Christian church. Two loaves of unleavened bread were presented as a “wave offering”, accompanied by a “peace offering”, a “burnt offering” and a “sin-offering”. It is obvious that all rituals have a very long history which cannot be divorced from cultic practices, and so we have to see what are the connections within the Holy Eucharist/Mass today. The present eucharistic practices using bread and wine go back to Jewish customs and some of the rituals and prayers are found in the text of Egyptian and Syrian rites.

At all Jewish meals including the “chaburah-supper”, the head of the house took bread and broke it and gave a piece to each person. Some scholars allude that Jesus used the practice of the “chaburah” to inaugurate what we now call the Holy Eucharist. The two Christian feasts of the primitive cycle, Pascha and Pentecost, came down to the church from apostolic times and they are derived from Jewish feasts. Jesus Christ inaugurated the Lord’s Supper where bread and wine were used. St John records the words of Jesus which are as follows, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whosoever eats of my flesh and drinks of my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” (St John 6:52-58).

In order to understand those who use ganja in their rituals we need to know if the same interpretation is given to ganja, that is, does it portray the mystical union between Christ and human beings and also does it guarantee eternal life? Anglican communicants view the Holy Eucharist as the meal of the Kingdom of God and it must be taken seriously. The late William Temple argued that to “eat the flesh” and “drink the blood” of the Son of Man are not the same. The former is to receive the power of self-giving and self-sacrifice to the utmost. The latter is to receive, in and through that self-giving and self-sacrifice, the life that is triumphant over death and united to God. The sacrament is normally necessary, but it is the communion that is vital.

Augustine of Hippo was never tired of repeating to his African parishioners in his sermons, these words: “So the Lord willed to impart His body, and His blood which He shed for the remission of sins. If you have received well, you are that which you have received. Your mystery is laid on the table of the Lord, your mystery you receive. To that which you are the answer Amen.” The Anglican does not need to take any drug to experience the mystery of God in the Holy Communion, because the presence is realised as we receive the bread and the wine, and by faith we accept that we are partaking of our Lord’s body and blood. (St. John 6: 53-58)

Let me close this exploratory article as I leave it for discussion by stating the following: if we are going to look at the authenticity of ganja as an outward sign of God’s grace, I would like my readers to note what Augustine of Hippo said concerning sacraments and signs: “A sacrament bears the likeness to the thing of which it is a sign. For if sacraments did not have likeness of the thing whose sacraments they are, they would not properly be called sacraments.” Peter Lombard echoed the view that, “Something can properly be called a sacrament if it is a sign of the grace of God and a form of invisible grace, so that it bears its image and exists as its cause.”

Therefore, neither Augustine of Hippo nor many of the early church fathers would regard ganja as an outward sign of the invisible grace of God by these definitions. Hugh of St Victor in the 12th century alluded that, “Not every sign of a sacred thing can properly be called a sacrament, because signs must have a physical or material element set before the eternal senses, representing by likeness, signifying by its institution and containing by sanctification, some invisible and spiritual grace.”

Anglicans support these truths which find meaning in this hymn written by the Baptist Bonar and is included in the hymns for Holy Communion (#414 A&M — see verse below). It is obvious that a theological dialogue between the Anglicans and the Rastafarians have to take place, to come to terms with the meaning of signs in the sacramental theology of both Rasta and Christian. What do you say?

“Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face;
Here faith would touch and handle things unseen;
Here grasp with firmer hand the eternal grace,
And all my weariness upon thee lean.”