Keith Magee: Why being a fraternity brother is compatible with my Christian faith

(—Historical­ly Black fraternities and sororities— often referred to as Black Greek-let­ter organizations, or BGLOs—have been making a difference in the lives of Black Americans for more than a hundred years. Members of these or­ganizations have historically been at the forefront of the struggle for racial equality and have been change-mak­ers in every professional sphere.

BGLOs regularly band together to fight principalities, dark powers and wickedness in high places and to pro­mote social justice, voting rights, and anti-poverty measures. And yet, over recent years, some Christians have denounced their BGLOs, publicly attacking them for being “idolatrous” in their use of symbolic Greek letters and for causing members to put loyalty to their organization above loyalty to their faith.

I know the most fundamentally important aspect of my identity is my love for Jesus as Lord. I trust the Holy Spirit as my lead and guide into all truth, and I constantly seek to live the life that is required of me as a believer. I am convinced that through the story of Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and soon-to-come return, the mes­sage He is sending us, in His wis­dom, is one of love. I try to embody that message in everything I do.

I am also a proud member of two Black fraternities, Kappa Alpha Psi (one of the Divine Nine collegiate BGLOs) and Sigma Pi Phi (for pro­fessionals). Kappa was founded by 10 principled Christian men. With Kappa, I was younger when I crossed and not quite as knowledgeable as I am now about my faith. Never­theless, at no point in my life have I ever entered into an unorthodox, uninformed, or ungodly alliance with a Greek deity. Nor have I ever sworn an oath that would in any way hin­der, absolve, or negate my Christian beliefs.

The Divine Nine were established, mainly in the first decades of the 20th century, as peer-support mech­anisms for Black college students. These young people experienced routine racial discrimination, not just in predominantly White institu­tions and in wider society, but also in the majority White fraternities and sororities already established on campuses. For many Black students, joining BGLOs helped them survive and thrive. Membership allowed them to bond, build lasting networks of brother- or sisterhood, and empow­er one another and the whole Black community, both at university and then beyond.

It would be impossible to list here the names of all the illustrious lead­ers from our community who were or are affiliated to BGLOs—there are simply too many to mention. But no­table examples include Rev. Samuel DeWitt Proctor (Kappa Alpha Psi); Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. (Al­pha Phi Alpha); and Rev. Jesse Jack­son (Omega Psi Phi). Bishop Vashti McKenzie, the first female bishop of the AME Church, is a member of Delta Sigma Theta, the sorority of which her grandmother, Vashti Tur­ley Murphy, was one of the founders. My own mother, Rev. Dr Barbara Reynolds, is a Delta too. One of my peers, Rev. Teraleen Campbell, is the International Chaplain of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. And let’s not forget, some of our current political heavyweights are also pledged to Greek letter organizations, including Vice-President Kamala Harris (Al­pha Kappa Alpha), Minority Leader of the U.S House of Representatives Hakeem Jeffries (Kappa Alpha Psi), and U.S. Senator Rev Raphael War­nock (Alpha Phi Alpha).

From their foundation, both Black and White fraternities and sororities chose to associate their organizations with letters of the Greek alphabet as a nod to the intellectual innovators who flourished in the rich cultural arena of ancient Greece. The en­during contributions made by sages like Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, and Pythagoras to fields such as philoso­phy, science, and mathematics meant aspirational college-educated men and women naturally wanted to be connected to such a tradition.

To this day, when the initiates of BGLOs swear oaths of loyalty, they are pledging to participate in the ongoing quest to unlock the secrets of great knowledge for the good of humanity as well as committing to uphold the ideals of their fraterni­ty or sorority for life. Why anyone would see that as being somehow in conflict with Christian values is utterly baffling to me.

I am in no way opposed to an individual deciding to renounce their affiliation to a BGLO because of their personal beliefs, any more than I would take issue with someone choosing to no longer eat shellfish, wear wool, or straighten their hair. However, when I hear a person denouncing BGLOs in general, insinuating that they are somehow “demonic,” and inciting all other members to follow their personal example, that causes me pause. Even if you experience what you believe to be a revelation that must guide your own choices, how can you then deem that to be the truth, rather than your truth?

One person’s shortcomings in life, or the way an individual lives in a particular state of sin doesn’t neces­sarily apply to everyone. Rather than rail against BGLOs, I wish more be­lievers would be concerned about the ungodly alliances or oaths some of us make to certain churches, other orga­nizations, and leaders who really do act or live in a perpetual reprobate state. In contrast, I would ask that we all extend a measure of grace to any group or institution—including Black BGLOs—whose members are exhorted to spend a lifetime making a positive impact on their communi­ties and exemplifying the kindness Jesus teaches us.

In the case of both my fraternities, I can unequivocally and whole­heartedly serve Jesus as Lord, while fulfilling our collective purposes and aims in the certain knowledge that Jesus gets the glory out of my being a member. Why? Because when I’m present with my brothers, the Holy Spirit is there abiding in me. I can, likewise, say that in every formal fraternity setting, overt reverence is always paid to what I believe. In fact, I often either attend or serve as the celebrant for the weekly online services that are currently held by one of Kappa’s alumni chapters.

Therefore, I am not tethered by being a fraternity brother—far from it. Nothing about my membership of these illustrious organizations restricts me in my faith. I’m entirely free in Him who set me free.

(Keith Magee is a theologian, political ad­viser and social justice scholar. He is chair and professor of practice in social justice at Newcastle University (United Kingdom). He is senior fellow and visiting professor in cultural justice at University College London Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, where he leads the Black Britain and Beyond think tank, and is also a fellow at its Centre on US Politics. He is the author of “Prophetic Justice: Essays and Reflections on Race, Religion and Politics.”)

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