The Need to Belong Can Be Deadly

by Rev. Peter E. Bauer

First of all, let me say, I never belonged to a fraternity in college. I was one of those students who lived at home and who commuted to school. Most of my contemporaries were the same way, including working part-time jobs when they were going to school. Living on a campus with all of its accoutrements seemed like a luxury.

I have several friends and colleagues who lived on college campuses while they were in school and had wonderful academic and social lives and made lots of friendships and connections that will probably remain with them lifelong. I’m happy for them. I think that if you go away to school and you live with others in a caring educational community, that it can be a very good thing.

What I can’t understand, however, is the phenomenon of bullying, hazing and torture that we have seen manifested at several college and university campuses including Florida A&M, Dartmouth, etc. Some of these horrific events have led to the loss of human life.

Now there is Pennsylvania State University.

Eighteen members of the now-shuttered Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Penn State University face charges in connection with the Feb. 4 death of sophomore, Timothy Piazza of Lebanon, New Jersey.

Eight face the most serious charge of aggravated assault, a felony that carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison. They also are charged with involuntary manslaughter, a misdemeanor punishable by 2 1/2 to 5 years in prison. (Source: Washington Post.)

Why would fraternity and sorority organizations and universities allow this kind of behavior to occur under the auspices of an initiation rite? Why do we need a “Rush” process? For that matter, what is the rush in acknowledging and welcoming new members to an organization? The whole hazing scandal reminds me of Groucho Marx’s observation:

“I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member. “

The Eagles once noted in their song “The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks” (1980):

“There was beer all over the dance floor 
 and the band was playing’ rhythm and blues 
 You got down and did the gator, and half 
 an hour later, you were barfin’ all over your 
 Girlfriend’s shoes.”

Honest to God, who wants this kind of sophomoric behavior? Okay, “Animal House” (1978) was a hilarious movie and the late John Belushi and crew at the Delta Tau Chi house did everything in their power to make life miserable for the dean of Faber College. But I don’t remember anybody getting killed or having to possibly go to prison.

Rituals and initiations are important in the lives of young people. There are examples of healthy initiations like going through Confirmation education and becoming a member of a church, going into the military, the Peace Corps etc., a young person having their Bar Mitzvah, etc. All of these examples of ritual and initiation speak to the important need of belonging to something that is greater than oneself.

However, I don’t see anything noble in an organization that selectively recruits aspirants who will look like them, think like them and then subject them to a gauntlet of humiliation and terror. How is this type of ritual endearing and motivating and meaningful?

As Jackson Browne noted:

“And you would think with all of the genius
And the brilliance of these times,
We might find a higher purpose
And a better use of mind.”

Well, the better use of mind is not happening here with the hazing scandal. I would be surprised if anyone from the university community will support the Piazza family long-term in their grief, let alone support the clergy person who has to officiate at the young man’s funeral.

And a better use of mind.”

Well, the better use of mind is not happening here with the hazing scandal. I would be surprised if anyone from the university community will support the Piazza family long-term in their grief, let alone support the clergy person who has to officiate at the young man’s funeral.

What is more baffling was to hear an administrator at Pennsylvania State University observe “that hazing will still continue.” (Source: NPR.)

You would think that enduring a needless tragic death of a young student and inevitable lawsuits would be enough for these institutions to pause, reflect and to change course.

They need to do better for the health and welfare of all of our young people who attend higher education.

May it be so.

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