I’ve made it here to my third, and last, part of this series, and now want to focus on what I had originally intended to highlight in my second post. I’ll cut to the chase and get straight to my claim: the average Evangelical doesn’t see justice as a concern of the church and consequently, the Evangelical orphan care/adoption movement has a difficult time talking about child trafficking, corruption, and coercion of biological families because it doesn’t have the grid necessary to facing such things head on. For generations now, if I may oversimplify matters for a moment, liberals have been concerned with social justice and conservatives (Evangelicals/fundamentalists) with getting souls saved. But here’s the problem: what happens when conservatives want to move in the direction of social justice? And what happens when they don’t have the apparatus (a theology of justice) in place to help them do so? What I would like to suggest is that when that apparatus is missing, we get what we currently see in the orphan care movement: an overemphasis on orphan and vulnerable children to the neglect of widows and other vulnerable groups. Orphan care and adoption obviously can be a beneficial thing, but when it is done at the expense of seeking justice for all involved in the process—when it is done without the basic infrastructure of a theology of justice—then we have problems. That is, responding to the needs of orphans and vulnerable children is part of a larger grid of justice-seeking, and if we don’t treat it this way, then we’re staring at one facet of a much larger diamond, thinking that that facet is all there is.
(I want to make clear before going any further that I am, of course, speaking on a macro level here about these matters. There are obviously Evangelicals out there who are seeking justice more broadly, who think and care about a more public justice that seeks the good of the world. This is clear from people I know personally, and the recent conversation that has begun in the blogosphere about orphan care and the issues surrounding it.)
So, why should Evangelicals interested in orphan care be concerned with justice? I think the best way to get at an answer to this question is to explain what living justly in this world means. In order to do so, I’m shamelessly going to lift what I have to say from a Tim Keller sermon you can find here. I’ve found what Keller preaches here to be clear and to the point and I think it provides the push in the right direction towards Evangelicals developing a broader understanding of justice.
What does Keller have to say about what it means to live justly in the world? He points out that in order to do so, one must live righteously, according to Scripture. The problem with the word righteous, however, is that when we hear it, it suggests to us all the prohibitions that we assume make up a “righteous” life: don’t lie, don’t cheat on your taxes, don’t sleep with another mans’ wife, and so on. But this is a very narrow understanding of the word that is used in Scripture. In Scripture, the word righteous means, as mentioned earlier, to live justly in the world, and the just—and here, Keller quotes Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke—are those “who are willing to disadvantage themselves to the advantage of the community,” while the unjust are those who “are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.” Thus, the just, or righteous, person is the one who is willing to consider others before herself—to seek the common good and not just her own good.
Keller continues to cite Waltke when he quotes from Proverbs 3:27: “Do not withhold good…when it is in your power to act.” Commenting on this verse, Keller says, “a just person is one who lives in the constant recognition of the claims of human community upon [him]…
And therefore it is unrighteous to not feed the poor when you have the power to do so, to take so much income out of your business that you own employees are paid poorly, or to be too busy with your own concerns to look to your elderly neighbors.
Thus, to live justly, righteously, in the world is to be aware of the claims of others on our lives: that is, we should be willing to do good when necessary, when we are able, if the situation calls for it. And to begin with, we must at least develop this “constant recognition” of those claims others have on us, so that while we may not always be called to action, we need to at least be aware and open to doing so.
What does this mean for the issue of orphan care/adoption? It means quite simply that if we do not feel the claims of biological parents on us, the claims of all the children who will never be adopted on us, the claims of the poor beggars and the naked in the streets of Addis Ababa (the city I’m most familiar with), the claims of the poor farmer whose crops have failed yet again, then we’re living unjustly.
For example, did you know that many biological families in Ethiopia assume that adoptive parents become like family when they take their children home with them to the U.S. and they want to know how their son or daughter is doing and assume there will be updates about his or her development and growth? That’s a claim. If we think we can ignore that cultural assumption of the Ethiopian, then we’re living unjustly. I realize this assumption that may be common with many Ethiopian parents may not be the same as, say, the assumption of a Russian biological parent. But that is not my point. Quite simply, my point is that we must think “constellationally” about the situations from which adopted children are coming. We have to see the patterns in the seemingly disconnected collection of events that have led to children being deemed orphans in the first place. When we do so, I think we can be sure we are seeking justice in accordance with biblical wisdom—that is, seeking to do good—or to prevent harm or further loss—when it is in our power to act.
One last thing from Keller. Keller goes on to say that living just lives, righteous lives, inevitably leads you toward a concern for public life. That is, as Christians, we never can be concerned only with our own private lives and spiritual experiences. Citing Titus 3:1-2, he says these verses are “talking about your public life…working for peace in society, showing a humble servant attitude toward all people…working for peace with all the groups out there, and mostly ready to do whatever is good…this cannot just mean ethical goodness in general. This is the common good.”
It’s this distinction between public and private that I think is an issue. Evangelicals have been influenced by a kind of pietism that emphasizes private spirituality and an inner, personal spiritual experience. Consequently, I don’t think the average Evangelical has the theological equipment, or apparatus, necessary to deal with an issue like justice in the public sphere.
Ultimately, if we have the apparatus in place to seek justice in the world in a way that is biblically grounded, then we should be for human flourishing—about bringing light and hope to all—not just the orphan. The difficult-to-face problem (and I know because I’m an adoptive parent) is that we may end up in a place we didn’t initially intend to go: we may end up concerned about our adopted child’s first family. We may find ourselves concerned with the corruption in the governments of these countries our children come from and how that corruption may be part of the web of problems that lead to orphaned children in the first place.
We must be willing to think “constellationally” about adoption and orphan care, for they do not exist within a vacuum. Children from developing countries needing to be adopted is a symptom; it’s the consequence of something much bigger than just the children, who are, without a doubt, very vulnerable—a much bigger problem that involves powers and rulers, desperately poor families (poverty that’s hard to imagine on this side of the world), corruption, etc. I’m not saying we should seek to “fix” these problems, and in fact, that is the last thing we I think we should try to do.
The first thing we need to do is be concerned for and make ourselves aware of all the problems that have led to vulnerable children and the need for orphan care in the first place. We need to listen and seek wisdom in these matters. The problem is, as Americans, we have a lot of resources and we’re a busy people, and we like to stay busy. We don’t know how to simply “be;” we see ourselves as good at fixing things and solving problems (especially with all those resources). The inherent danger in this lies in the simple fact that the countries in which Evangelicals are seeking to do orphan care, or from which they are seeking to adopt, are not like the United States at all, and the average Evangelical doesn’t know the first thing about how life in, say, Ethiopia works—even when he has spent weeks in-country. (My wife and I lived in Ethiopia for two years. She would be just as quick to confess as I would that we knew less about how Ethiopian culture works when we left in 2011 than we arrived in 2009.) Consequently, one has to resist the urge to jump head first into the pond—that is, the pond of working in a very different culture—lest he incapacitate himself in the process. That would be the very first step toward seeking justice in the countries from which we adopt—the very first step toward not withholding good when it is in our power to act.