In my last post, I made the claim that the average Evangelical’s understanding of justice is too narrow—that it lacks the breadth it needs to include not only the orphan, but also the widow, the poor, the immigrant. I want to continue down this path in this post, but I do want to make something clear up front: a blog post is not the place to work out that thorough-going theology of justice I mentioned in the previous post; there are others who have done that and do it better than I ever could. However, in a third post, I would like to point folks in the right direction toward that kind of theology. In this post, though, I would like to encourage Evangelicals to develop the “righteous” objectivity I mentioned in part one when it comes to thinking about orphan care and adoption. I want to explore what may be preventing Evangelicals from developing it.
But first, I would like to say that as an adoptive father and one who has lived in Ethiopia, I am pro-adoption (when adoption is the only option left for a child) and I am pro-orphan care. But I also firmly believe that adoption is not God’s original plan—an original plan that did not include the loss and suffering of my daughters’ first families. God created everything good, and man, in an attempt to play god, ruined it with his lack of trust and desire for control. But God, in his self-giving love, saw fit to rescue him and redeem the world. This is the basic narrative that informs my understanding of adoption. Man’s sin brought famine, disease, betrayal, and ultimately, death into the world; it’s because of these things that man came up with adoption in the first place. But these things were not in God’s original plan—human flourishing was, however—flourishing that included plenteous crops, health, trusting relationships, intact families, and life. And yet, I know that there are many in the Evangelical world who would take issue with how I have stated the fundamental narrative of the Bible. To them, adoption was always God’s original plan—from before the foundations of the world. To them, because God adopts us and gives us a new name, we, likewise, should do the same for our adopted children—even going as far as having them abandon their first names and cultures—indeed, their identities. They believe because this is what God does for us, we should do the same for our adopted children. It’s the classic argument from the greater to the lesser.
But there are problems with this kind of thinking that I don’t have the expertise to illuminate, though I would commend to you Dr. David Smolin’s insightful article on the Evangelical adoption movement and what adoption meant in the ancient Greco-Roman world (he says it in more detail than I have time for in his article). However, what I would like to claim in this post is that the basic understanding I articulated above, regarding God’s original plan, helps Christians have a more nuanced view of adoption—one that seeks wisdom as it balances the old with the new, first parents and culture with adoptive parents and culture. Such a theology also helps us not to shy away from thinking about issues like corruption, child trafficking, coercion, and so on. Understanding that adoption was not a part of God’s original plan allows us to develop the wisdom of the serpent while allowing us to maintain our dove-like innocence. We, too, like Christ’s disciples, have been sent out as sheep among the wolves, and it’s to our great harm—and even more importantly, to the great harm of others—if we go out among the ravenous beasts (i.e. corruption, child trafficking, etc.) innocent of these troubling problems and how they affect vulnerable children and families in the countries from which we adopt.
Not only is innocence not enough to help us navigate these issues, but zeal, or single-minded enthusiasm, for orphans is not enough either. Why? Because zeal without knowledge leads to a pragmatic approach to the “orphan crisis”—one that is inevitably focused on action and making things “work” without taking the time to reflect on the consequences of our actions. In fact, John Stott, at the beginning of his little book Your Mind Matters, speaks to this when he quotes Dr. John McKay, former president of Princeton Seminary: “Commitment without reflection is fanaticism in action.” Fanaticism is a charged word, I know, and I don’t cite this quotation lightly, but there is a reason why someone like Kathryn Joyce, writing from the outside of Evangelicalism, would describe the adoption movement as a “fever” in her Mother Jones piece, and it doesn’t help when Evangelicals, uncritical of themselves, react to her use of the word and her critique. Even if she has an agenda, Christians should be humble enough to accept such criticism if it’s true. In making this point, I’m not worried about what the orphan movement looks like to the outside world (“Those crazy-for-God fanatic Evangelicals!”) as much as I am concerned with actually being part of a fanatical movement—that is, one whose excessive enthusiasm for a cause (i.e. orphans) drowns out all other concerns (i.e. corruption, justice for first families, the poverty and disease that leads to orphans in the first place, etc.). As Christians, we are not called to be activists with a single focus. We are called to be fully human, ready to engage the world not just with our money, time, strategies, and planning but also with our minds—our reflective minds that guide us to assess the world before us with biblical wisdom—the good, the bad, and the ugly. If we will eschew the fanaticism of activism, we will be prepared to grow in the “righteous” objectivity I’ve been mentioning in this post and the last—objectivity that will prevent us from, dare I say, being partial toward the orphan at the expense the orphan’s biological family (see Lev. 19.15 again for the principle behind what I’m saying here). We will be able to suspend judgment and not dive into something so quickly that has hidden dangers—dangers obscured by the thousands of miles between our children’s first countries and us.
What this all means is that the average Evangelical must grow up when it comes to his reflection upon the world and the evil that is out there—especially as it relates to orphan care and adoption. The world is a very dark place—not to mention a place laden with complexities—and to launch out into it with only zeal will not do. Evangelicals concerned for the plight of the orphan must cultivate biblical wisdom that has room for the orphan, yes, but also the widow—the widow who the orphan belongs to in the first place—the poor, the alien, or immigrant.
The way I see it, if Evangelicals are going to develop a “righteous” objectivity about orphan care and adoption, they have to learn to think biblically. Consider the verb in that infinitive phrase—“to think.” The modifier is “biblically.” I’m choosing my words carefully here: thinking is something we do as humans made in God’s image and then, as Christians, do so with an understanding of the world that is shaped by the biblical narrative. Despite some popular understandings of how to understand the Bible, it is not a manual and we shouldn’t follow it like one. We don’t follow it like we would the manual for our car when we’re trying to repair it. Likewise, when we see a problem in the world, we can’t assume that we can go to Scripture and then have a clear application from Scripture for that problem. Moreover, we shouldn’t expect Scripture to speak as plainly as we often assume it does. The Gospel is plain and the simplest of people can understand it but Scripture is nuanced, delivered to us via human authors, living in a time and culture distinct from our own. We have to honor those human and ancient cultural elements of Scripture if we want to be faithful to it and then also be faithful to the world that we are called to serve.
If we want to grow in biblical wisdom that allows us to assess the world and its problems with a righteous objectivity, then we must honor Scripture in this way. Only then will we be prepared to go out into the world and face its complexities.
In my third, and final post, I want to point Evangelicals supportive of adoption and orphan care toward a broader understanding of justice—one that will allow them to pursue hope and healing for orphans while not leaving those orphans’ first families behind.