September 17, 2012

A Theology of Hazing

On Saturday, November 19, 2011, drum major Robert Champion and the rest of Florida A&M University’s Marching 100 band thrilled halftime crowds at their school’s annual football game against Bethune-Cookman University. That night Champion was found dead in the band’s chartered bus parked outside an Orlando hotel. Why?

Police charged 13 of his friends with involvement in the miserable tragedy, most with the third-degree felony of hazing resulting in death.1  So why did his friends beat him to death? What kinds of friends do that?

I’ve got the answer to the last question: friends who haze. Hazing is a special game you play with special friends. You are not to think that because you find it violent or abusive, somebody hates you or wants to kill you. No way! Hazing is your access road into a community that in many cases will stand by, cry with, shout and cheer, and stick up for you through anything life throws at you thereafter. Hazing is induction. Hazing is welcome! In Champion’s case, it was welcome to a band that has performed at the Grammys, presidential inaugurations, and Super Bowls.2

Hazing does not require beating. That would be so dim and uncreative. College kids can think of a lot more than beating. So hazing’s ways can range widely, from sexual coercion to forced consumption of water or “vile food mixtures.”3 lists 31 examples of hazing under the three categories of subtle hazing, harassment hazing, and violent hazing.4 And Elizabeth Allan’s multiyear National Study of Student Hazing5 lists more than 30 behaviors that meet a research-based, academically determined definition of hazing: “Any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.”6 The one nonnegotiable seems to be that “there’s no such thing as harmless hazing.”7 Drinking games top the lists for seven of nine specific college groups surveyed about hazing. Those groups include varsity, club, and intramural sports, social and service sororities and fraternities, as well as recreational and academic clubs.8 For the other two identifiable groups surveyed,9 drinking games were second (marching band, chorus) and third (honor society).10

2012 1525 page16

Pam and Robert Champion hold a photo of their son, Robert, a Florida A&M University Drum Major who died in a hazing incident.

Persistent “Why?”
I wonder about the persistence of this amazing phenomenon of pain as privilege, shame as shalom, bane as blessing, and victimization as validation. I admit to being baffled, because I cannot see how it could all be quite worth the payoff. I know that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).11 But that glory is quite distinct from providing more halftime entertainment or playing for the next inauguration. I’ve learned that Champion was not hazing’s first martyr. Researcher Hank Nuwer knows that hazing claims at least one life per year in America, though often more, with 104 deaths between 1970 and 2012.12 People even kill themselves in reaction to the process of punishment as welcome relief.13 So I wonder even more: Why does hazing continue, if it makes good people kill their own innocent friends? Is it that deep? And why do the martyrs endure it? What kind of faithfulness to death is this? Am I or anybody else to believe that neither death, nor life, nor anything else can separate them from their beloved club?

In With the Crowd
Could it be because so many people are doing it? Allan finds that “55% of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing.”14 Moreover, hazing is not the exclusive province of mad frat boys on American college campuses. It’s practiced in the military, in athletic clubs, and even in some workplaces.15 Eric Anderson sees just as much hazing in the United Kingdom, where he lectures at the University of Winchester, as he does in his native U.S.16 Further, hazing may be even more widespread off the college campus than on it: 47 percent of college-bound students have already experienced hazing.17 Hank Nuwer’s unsympathetic label of the practice as “cowardly and brutal”18 has not kept it from being widespread, and widespread makes for very strong arguments—such as the more than 900 million people on Facebook. This proves that those not yet on Facebook need to quickly join in.

Admittedly, arguments from numbers may have a downside: There are more than 1.2 billion people in India, and by the year 2030 there will be more people in India than there are in China.19 This does not make it clear whether you need to be there sooner or later, and whether “there” means India or China. Nevertheless, hazing may draw strength from the numbers of people who are doing and have already done it. Intemperately exhausted medical interns and residents have dealt with a double-barreled staple of the hazing community, namely, that others have gone through the same thing for generations before; and that beyond that, even if by the same token, new pledges, by enduring their persecution, make themselves part of a storied history: for the greater the number, the more vast the throng of people who now and before have borne similar humiliation, degradation, abuse, or endangerment,20 the more significant one’s place in history if one accepts equivalent shame.

Jesus was of course aware of this argument and has labeled it the “broad way” perspective: “For the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter through it” (Matt. 7:13).

Hazing, if not for the sake of the many, must be for the sake of belonging. Blogger Jasper420 says that 1.5 million students are hazed every year. What drives many of them? The need to belong.21 Responding, Pamela99 comments that “young people want to fit [in] so badly they will go along with the crowd sometimes.” What they often do not realize, stresses Nuwer, is that kids under pressure can say yes to something when they mean no.22 The pressure works in multiple ways. Apart from the sense that everybody is doing it, and the contradictory thrust that this makes you special, is the secrecy that the pledge must maintain: “46% [of pledges] believe that the most important thing is to keep the silence and remain under oath.”23 But that silence itself usually means far more, in the end, than it did when first taken, because a pledge’s oath is signing a blank check that will bankrupt them later on.

2012 1525 page16Pledges are at the mercy of greedy organizations, “groups that set up strong boundaries between members and nonmembers and assert exclusivity. Fraternity initiation rites are designed to terminate or curtail many of the associations that pledges previously held outside of that organization.”24 The price of belonging is separation from the world—a very biblical thing (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17); it is identity surrender, something Christ also demands, however much more or less inclined we may be to pledge to His cause. As Paul understood it, crucified with Christ, I no longer live. Christ lives in me (Gal. 2:20).  “Greek organizations manipulate the material selves of their members by constructing new identity kits for their recruits.”25 They are conformed to a new personhood: “When pledges surround themselves with [the paraphernalia they are given],26 it enhances the degree to which the fraternity becomes part of their identity. A 1997 study of sororities . . . revealed that pledges often build their entire wardrobe around the colors and insignias of their organization.”27

Belonging must be a powerful urge. For what we have here is a form of conversion in which old things are passed away and all things become new (see 2 Cor. 5:17), and all for the sake of belonging. By this process, initiates cease to be conformed to this world. They become transformed, through behavior modification, to new mind-sets, so that for the rest of their lives they may extoll what is that good, and perfect, and acceptable will of their Greek society (see Rom. 12:2). Pledges will pay any price, it seems, including loss of dignity, exposure to shame, surrender of their former identity, and transformation of their entire wardrobes, for the sake of belonging to something they value. Like Paul they are now “well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, [even if not] for Christ’s sake” (2 Cor. 12:10).

Other Arguments
What other inspirations are there for hazing? The sense of privilege? Hazing seems to be much more the province of private schools than that of the inner city.  Again, does hazing survive because of strong tradition, or because it only looks mean but isn’t really so? Not when it leads where it does. Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar is categorical: “I have come to believe that hazing is a term for bullying. It’s bullying with a tradition—a tradition that we cannot bear in America.”28

What Now?
Hazing needs fixing. But we cannot fix it without a proper understanding of it. Hazing is no mere function of twisted and limited minds. It is very much a hallmark of campus intelligentsia, and will not go away just because it’s dismissed as stupid. We need to appreciate the hazers’ pride of belonging, and the hazees’ longing for it. We must concede our society’s celebration of machismo, the hazers’ will to develop it in their subjects, and the hazees’ will to show it. But machismo can be tragically destructive. “Nobody is more macho than a racer or a football player,” says drag racing champion and former college quarterback John Force.29 Nevertheless, raceways had to learn to put safety ahead of machismo after 10 drivers got killed between 1996 and 2001. Some of that was four deaths in nine months, including Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500. But a decade went by without a death after the sport learned and changed.30 And if a single year, 2008, could record six college student deaths from hazing,31 it surely means that it is time for all involved to learn and change.

For that change to come we also need to acknowledge the strength and breadth and depth of the hazing tradition, and the myths that glorify it. And we need to admit the link to greatness initiates can feel as they become part of societies that number international celebrities. But the law has spoken. Hazing is already illegal in 44 states, with no good reason to be ignored elsewhere, though some would-be reformers fear making heroes out of defiant youth driven to greater secrecy and more extreme behaviors.

Still, the best understanding of hazing is born of the clearest insight into human nature. The tragedy of hazing is the distortion within that makes cruelty attractive, whether as amusement or as discipline. It is the emptiness within that no Greek society, athletic club, or marching band membership will quite fill up. It is the striving that leads me to believe I pay my dues by enduring enough pain—even arbitrary pain capriciously inflicted. The hole inside is a God-sized hole. And rest in Jesus from sin’s guilt will end youths’ desperate striving for legitimacy. And fascination with the beauty of brutality is an enemy’s success in degrading the image of the God who is love.

If we must suffer in the world where that enemy has enshrined chaos as norm, and cruelty as god, we accept it, not for the sake of striving to belong, but in the cause of the One to whom we know we belong, He from whose love “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will [ever] be able to separate us” (Rom. 8:38, 39). If we must endure hardship, we endure as His good soldiers (2 Tim. 2:3), and for the sake of eternal consequence. If we must suffer, we shall suffer for Jesus who suffered for us, the Just for the unjust, knowing that we shall also reign with Him (1 Peter 3:18; 2 Tim. 2:12). He got hazed, not so that He could be part of the in crowd, but so that we could be. It is by His hazing that we are healed (Isa. 53:5). 

1Kate Dailey, “Who, What, Why: Why Is Hazing so Common?” BBC News Magazine, May 03, 2012;
2Gary Fineout, “Arrests In Hazing Case Keep Cloud Over FAMU”; Seattle Times, May 3, 2012; http://seattle
5See initial report at
6Ibid., p. 2. 
7Dailey, quoting Allan., tables 6-14, pp. 19-22. 
9“Identifiable groups”—sororities, varsity sports, etc., contrasts with multiple entities Allan reports on in a single block labeled “religious groups, culturally based groups and student government.” 
10, pp. 21, 22.
11 Scripture quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
12 Dailey.
13 In the fall of 2011 U.S. Army private Danny Chen killed himself after weeks of hazing and taunts from fellow military personnel in Afghanistan. Eight soldiers have been charged with crimes, including involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide:
14, p. 2.
15 Dailey.
16 Ibid.
17, p. 2.
18 Hank Nuwer, High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs (Franklin Watts, 2000), p. 13.
20 See again Allan’s definition of hazing: www.
, p. 2.
22 Nuwer, High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs, p. 12.
24 Stephen Sweet, “Understanding Fraternity Hazing,” in Hank Nuwer, The Hazing Reader (Indiana University Press, 2004), p. 6.
25 Ibid.
26 Pledge pins, T-shirts, sweatshirts, rings, books, and paddles bearing the fraternity’s insignia.
27 Ibid.
28 Toluse Olorunnipa, “Thirteen Charged in Hazing Death of FAMU Student Robert Champion,” Miami Herald Online, May 2, 2012:
29 Ryan McGee, “Racers’ Message: Embrace Safety,” ESPN the Magazine, May 11, 2012;
30 Ibid.
31 National Agenda for Hazing Prevention in Education;

Lael Caesar likes to play so long as nobody gets hurt. He is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published September 13, 2012.