Orphan Care is Not Enough: Part 1

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As I listened to the lectionary readings in church today, I was struck by one in particular from the Old Testament.  It came from Leviticus 19.15 where it says, “You shall do no injustice in court.  You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.”  What struck me about this passage is the call to “righteousness,” which is here characterized as not being overly piteous toward the poor—to the degree that you check your reason at the door—nor overly preferential toward those with power, or “the great.”  Isn’t this kind of wisdom what we need in our time—a time that is so divided along party lines that the best we can muster in our public discourse—whether it’s over political issues, theological, etc.—is to lob polemical rants at the other side from the safety of our cyber trenches? I sat there and mused about such things as the lay reader finished the passage.

But then, this verse also led my mind in another direction—one that I had a bit of experience with since my wife and I worked in this field when we lived in Ethiopia: international adoption.  It wasn’t the content of the verse that got me thinking so much as the principle behind it—that is, the maintaining of a “righteous” objectivity in matters where one’s heart may find itself divided (more on the word righteous in Part 2).

I first became aware that the news coming from the international adoption world was a mixed bag when in 2010, ABC, the Australian Brodcasting Corporation, began producing news stories and viewpoints critical of international adoption—especially in Ethiopia.  My wife and I had just moved to Addis Ababa with our daughter, Ruthie (adopted from Ethiopia in 2008), and were skeptical of such stories as we began to receive links to them via email.  Both of us, at the time, I think, were aware of the complexity of international adoption—the way it affects both children and birth families—but I think the awareness remained exactly that—an awareness.  It wasn’t until we had lived in Addis for another year or so that that awareness—an awareness of the complexities of not only adoption but of also working with the poor—became more concrete.  It wasn’t any one person or situation that did it.  It was, rather, the slow accumulation of one experience after the next of life in a severely impoverished country that did.

More recently, there has been more bad press about international adoption—and in particular, about Christians adopting internationally.  Many who will read this piece of mine will now be familiar with Kathryn Joyce’s article from Mother Jones entitled Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession.   In it, Joyce primarily writes about the Allisons, a family who lives in a rural “hamlet” outside Nashville where they homeschool their kids and live on a “compound” with Serene Allison’s parents, Colin and Nancy Campbell (Colin is a pastor and Nancy is a “Christian leader” among homeschooling mothers and even has her own magazine). Sam, Serene’s husband, went to Liberia in 2005, intending to bring back three orphans and instead came back with four, after he and an adoption worker rescued an infant from the “bush.”  Things started out fine for the newly adopted kids but then quickly—after a month, one of them says—went south as Sam and Serene Allison made few provisions for their adopted children from a world away—forcing them to homeschool when they expected to go to public schools, using the controversial parenting methods of Growing Kids God’s Way, and in essence living a rural life not too much different from the children’s previous lives in Liberia.

In 2005, Nancy Campbell’s magazine, Above Rubies, began advocating for international adoption, and shortly thereafter, many of her readers were on the road toward adopting a child from Liberia—or in some cases, multiple children.  But, because many of these families were ill-equipped (like the Allisons, Joyce’s article suggests) to parent children from such difficult backgrounds as the children from previously war-torn Liberia, they experienced problems—problems when these adopted children didn’t respond to the same discipline these parents gave their biological children, problems because some of these children were “liars,” and so on.

Having just read Joyce’s article today and consequently being unaware of the response to it, my wife told me that many in the Evangelical adoption community view Joyce’s article as unfair because she is focusing her story on a fringe element of the Evangelical orphan care movement, not families within its mainstream—many of whom have been prepared to parent children from other cultures and difficult places.  These mainstream parents don’t live in the sticks without electricity (see the article for what I’m referring to here), don’t homeschool but rather seek out the best kind of education for their adopted children, and they discipline their adopted children with an awareness that adopted kids may not, and many cases, will not, respond to traditional methods of correction.

While I believe these responses to Joyce’s article are valid and in fact, I myself feel the same way, I want to focus on an crucial issue Joyce’s piece suggests.  In fact, the title of her article does more than suggest it.  When Joyce says, with her title, that Evangelical’s have “orphan fever,” I am inclined to agree.  Again, I see the problems with her article.  If she had just used a different tone with her piece and focused on people who are living more mainstream lives, she would have a stronger case.  Sure, I think so, too.  Moreover, I am an adoptive father and see good reasons for international adoption, but I also think Joyce is tapping into something that Evangelicals may be missing because the call to care for orphans has risen to such a, well, feverish pitch.

Why is this?  Why, for example, is the call to care orphans so loud and persistent when, in fact, Scripture is just as insistent that God’s people should be just as concerned for widows, immigrants, the poor?

I suspect that it has something to do with what I mentioned earlier: the need for Evangelicals to cultivate a “righteous” objectivity in matters that pull our hearts in two different directions.

But ultimately, I think the problem is that the average Evangelical has a narrow view of justice and what’s needed is a thorough-going theology of justice that Evangelicals can embrace—and I might add, are beginning to embrace (at least the younger generation is as is evidenced by the End It campaign).  It’s not just the orphan that should be our concern.  A theology of justice is needed that is able to speak to the whole problem of poverty—the systemic issues that have given rise to the orphan crisis in the first place—corrupt leaders and political mismanagement, drought and food security issues, human rights, etc.

The problem is that such a theology of justice requires a lot of thought and the average person is not prepared to put that much thought into seeking a solution to such a problem.  I think I can safely say this because I recognize this lack of willingness to think through these complex issues in myself.  I just want the problem of poverty and its effects to be easier and besides, who has the time or leisure to think through such a complex issue as the poverty affecting most third world countries?  I don’t—at least I don’t feel like I do most days.

But I do have a desire to think through these issues more carefully, and perhaps that is all I need.  If the desire to acquire wisdom, as it says in Proverbs, is the beginning of wisdom, then perhaps we can say the beginning of a thorough-going theology of justice—one that includes the orphan, the widow, the immigrant (or alien as it’s often translated in the Bible), and the poor (including birth families)—is the desire to acquire it.

More about this kind of theology of justice in my next post.

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4 thoughts on “Orphan Care is Not Enough: Part 1

  1. Pingback: A True Conversation About Unethical Adoption? Contesting Together for Adoption’s Use of ‘Uncontested Terms’ | Notes From a Poor Country

  2. I agree – Mark Riley and others are always telling me (all of us) to stop using the word “orphan” and “orphan care” b/c emphasizing these terms ends up creating orphans – i.e. families and extended family systems relinquishing care of kids, so the kids can have access to resources designated “for orphans” – and for awhile I was doing well at talking about “vulnerable kids and their families” or “those in crisis” – but after the Orphan Summit, I slipped back in – thanks for the reminder and let me know of any vernacular ideas you have. I think for me, the fear of shifting from “orphan care” to something as broad as “poverty reduction” was just scary because even though the number of “orphans” is completely overwhelming, the number of people in poverty is “exponentially more,” and I’d rather attach a problem with define-able boundaries – I don’t think it’s just a Christian thing….I think many do-good-ers who are not informed by the research, etc just want to “do their thing” w/out acknowledging the bigger picture. But I do see a pattern in missions/development in general of Christians failing to engage with the broader non-profit/development world, research, best practices, etc b/c they are not “Christian” – a huge part of my heart is for cross-pollination – I love that the Joint Council and CAFO are working together – and I loved how at the Orphan Summit there were people from every type of government and educational institution sharing their research and expertise – I’m sure there are tons of people there who didn’t attend those sessions and missed it – but I was enraptured and could have stayed for weeks with all those gurus discussing things – wow – I still can’t believe I sat in the room with some of those people!!!

  3. Pingback: Cause and effect – a very long post… | The adopted ones blog

  4. Hi Michael. I am loving your thoughts on adoption and orphan care, especially how they relate to the gospel. I worked with adoptions in Liberia for 3 years and saw the good and the bad of the international adoption movement. I am now ready to start blogging about the harm that is being caused by large scale international adoption efforts. Could you please get in touch with me? I have a question for you and could not find your contact info. Thanks!

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