Can We Have a Real Conversation About Unethical Adoption? Taking a Look at Together for Adoption’s Rhetoric

(Photo courtesy of Institute of Development Studies)

I’ve debated about whether I’ve needed to write this post, and I’ve decided that I do.

Earlier last week, Dan Cruver had a guest blogger, Micah Jelinek, write a post on his Together for Adoption blog in response to my post “‘Cosmetic Solutions’? Some Thoughts About Dan Cruver’s Series on Unethical Adoption.”  In this post, Jelinek comes to Cruver’s defense, claiming that I misunderstand Cruver’s theology of adoption, while also expanding that theology to show how it fits within a broader theology of justice.

Let me just say, first of all, that I think Cruver, Jelinek, and I end up in the same place: all three of us stand for ethical adoptions, social justice, and believe that when all is said and done, Christ will make all things new.  I agree with much of what Jelinek wrote, but in order to prevent us from talking past each other, I want to highlight a few subtle, but crucial, differences.

In “Orphan Care is Not Enough: Part 3” I mentioned that I was making my critique of Cruver from a macro level.  I purposely painted with a broad brush when describing Evangelicalism’s relationship with social justice in order to shine a light on the assumptions of Evangelicalism.  I did not intend to argue facts and details (e.g. isolated cases where Evangelicals have pursued social action) but instead I wanted to try to expose underlying beliefs that have made it difficult in the past for Evangelicals to embrace, without hesitation or equivocation, social justice.

Misunderstanding this aim of mine led Jelinek to claim that I was criticizing Cruver because he had “forgotten to address broader social justice issues as a result of an underdeveloped theology of justice.”  I believe I made clear, though, that the language I was critiquing in Cruver’s post was symptomatic of the “old dichotomy” between Gospel proclamation and seeking social justice that has long been inherent in Evangelical theology–that, whether Cruver realizes it or not, the suspicion toward social justice was latent in his language.   I wasn’t saying that Cruver should have been writing about “broader social justice issues” or that, somehow, he had forgotten to do so.  Rather, I was suggesting that Cruver narrowly focuses on adoption because it’s an acceptable form of social involvement among Evangelicals.  I realize he may intend otherwise, but Cruver’s language suggests the uneasiness Evangelicals have had with social action.  In fact, shortly after I posted my critique of his post, Cruver got in touch with me via email and it gave me a chance to explain my point to him.  Here is part of what I wrote:

I wrote what I wrote because I perceived a fundamental inconsistency in what you were writing and what I hoped my post would encourage you to clarify your meaning.  I am sure you are opposed to the Manichean split between social justice and the preaching of the Good News, but while you may hold to this theoretically, I still stand by my assertion in my post that your language betrays that belief.  My post wasn’t a critique of you or your beliefs as much as it was a critique of the assumption that seems to be latent in your words.  I’m sure if you and I could meet and talk, we would find a lot to agree about…But as a writing teacher, I know that language matters, and so when I said I detected in your language the split between pursuing social justice on the one hand and preaching the Gospel on the other, I meant that as a critique of the way you expressed yourself. So, whereas you may know for a fact that you don’t see a huge chasm between social justice and the preaching of the Gospel, I don’t think your language expresses that very clearly.  So, take that for what it’s worth.   

I would also like to add, in response to Jelinek, that I did not seek to “account for the large numbers of Evangelicals who have been concerned with social responsibility since the mid ‘6o’s” because I was not focusing on the exceptions, but rather the rule.  Ask any historian of American Evangelicalism, and he will tell you that Evangelicalism has never fully embraced social justice, and when it has, it’s been with an uneasy and awkward side hug. Sure, there are groups within Evangelicalism that have been, and still are, advocating for social justice while proclaiming the gospel, but these groups are exactly that–groups within a much larger movement.  Again, they are the exception, not the rule.

To be fair to Jelinek, I am well aware of recent movements within Evangelicalism and books that have been published more recently that highlight Evangelicalism’s growing embrace of social justice.  I mentioned before the End It movement, borne out of the student-focused Passion Conferences, in “Orphan Care is Not Enough: Part 1.”   And as far as books go, I am aware of Tim Keller’s A Generous Justice, When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, and The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns to name a few.  These, and many more, are all wonderful signs that Evangelicals are seeing the need to be active in the world, not just to save souls so they can make it to heaven, but to bring light in the the dark corners of the world.

With all that said, when you boil it all down, I think that my ultimate problem with Cruver’s point of view, and now Jelinek’s, is a rhetorical one as much as a theological one (the theological problem I discussed here).

Though I believe Jelinek makes a fairly clear case for how “capital A” adoption is central to all of salvation history and guides us in our pursuit of justice, I’m still confused about one thing in particular.  When Jelinek writes, “Adoption is bigger than adoption,” a la Cruver, he fails to connect this in any meaningful way with what he writes after that statement.  While I understand what he’s getting at with this idea (I think), it would help the discussion regarding adoption standards if this concept was more thoroughly brought into conversation with some of the critiques of this idea (more on this in a minute).

In my mind, the adoption metaphor, as Cruver and Jelinek use it, is overburdened and in danger of collapse.  While I understand this metaphor’s role in expressing the profound reality of God’s redemption of his people, I also believe metaphors have limits.  (A question I still would like answered is “Does Cruver, and now Jelinek, view adoption as a literal cosmic event? Or, is it a metaphor?  And if it is, can it still be authoritative for Cruver and Jelinek as ‘merely’ a metaphor?”)

To close, what I would like to do now is transition from my response to Jelinek and focus on Cruver once more–in particular, on his response to David Smolin’s critique of the Evangelical adoption movement. “Adoption,” as Cruver uses it, is an ultimate term, or “uncontested term.”  An uncontested term represents the “values, premises, and conclusions assumed already ‘fixed by universal enlightened consensus’ for an era or a culture.”  To me, the key words from this definition are “assumed” and “culture.”   I believe Cruver has helped create a culture that, in my mind, has become so insular that it can rarely, if ever, truly hear any dissenting opinions.  This is why, for example, I don’t think Cruver has ever actually answered Smolin’s critique (click on the link above and see for yourself).  Cruver is speaking a language that only those who assume the values, premises, and conclusions of T4A can hear.  It’s as though if one does not use the code Cruver speaks (employing terms like “redemptive-historical,” for example), then one cannot be heard. Smolin doesn’t use that code and thus, he isn’t heard by Cruver (if you read Cruver’s response to Smolin, you’ll see what I’m talking about here).  As far as I can tell, the best Cruver does in his response to Smolin is simply to dismiss Smolin’s critique.  He never really interacts with Smolin’s socio-historical exegesis, but instead is surprised (genuinely, I think) when Smolin does not hold to the same “metanarrative” he does–doesn’t use the same code he does.  Consequently, he spends the rest of his critique earnestly educating his audience and Dr. Smolin about redemptive-historical theology and how it provides a theological justification for adoption.  Again, the problem with this approach is it causes Cruver to disengage from the matter at hand and therefore prevents him from really interacting with Smolin’s textual critiques, thereby effectively shutting down the conversation.

When I studied the Bible in college, I was taught that Scripture cannot mean for us what it never meant to its original audience.  This fact is what leads students and scholars of the Bible to spend so much time exploring the socio-political (and yes, rhetorical) layers of the text.  Cruver dispenses with this principle with his overemphasis on a redemptive-historical understanding of adoption.  He misses the socio-historical trees for the redemptive-historical forest.

For me, what this all boils down to is this:  Does the theology of adoption that Dan Cruver and T4A put forth allow us to live with “the constant recognition of the claims of human community” upon us?  To put it another way, what is the trajectory of such a theology?  I think, in the end, Cruver and Jelinek agree with me that the Evangelical community has to have a more multi-faceted approach to working with orphans and vulnerable children (Cruver even has a post on the T4A blog entitled “Adoption Doesn’t Mean Adoption,” in which he explains how T4A is about more than child placement).  But as I wrote to Cruver in the email cited earlier, language matters.  The way we talk about adoption and the care of vulnerable children shapes our imagination and how we see the matter at hand.  Allowing some of their terms and ideas to be challenged would help Cruver and T4A foster a true conversation about best practices and the care of vulnerable children and their families.

8 thoughts on “Can We Have a Real Conversation About Unethical Adoption? Taking a Look at Together for Adoption’s Rhetoric

  1. As an adoptee who grew up in a deeply religious family – we were never treated as having been redeemed by adoption. Or that adoption of us was done because God called them to adopt. The entire conversation that focus on adoption as redemption and tries to link the two distinctly different types of adoption as being the same – bothers me more than anything. Adopt because you want to be parents and adoption was the path you chose to to attain that goal. I believe that must be the primary reason or I don’t think you are doing the child any favors at all.

    Really enjoying all your posts.

    1. michaelfunderburk

      A really good point, TAO. As a colleague, who had adopted three girls from China, told me just as my wife and I were beginning the adoption process for the first time, “We adopted because we wanted a family.” David Smolin makes the case that the emphasis put on adoption by T4A diminishes the role of biological families in Scripture. I think it almost dismisses the desire to adopt simply to build a family. Why do we need, what in essence is, a philosophy of adoption? Isn’t the desire for children God-given? Isn’t that a spiritual enough reason to adopt? DO we have to spiritualize it? (I think this need to spiritualize adoption is, again, symptomatic of the grace and nature/spiritual and natural division latent in T4A’s theology) While I am not against having a theology of adoption, per se–and not against it in all cases as a motivation to adopt–I am right with you. This spiritualization of adoption has always bothered me. Your comment may just be the encouragement I need to write a post about this topic (I’ve been thinking about doing so). Thanks for reading!

  2. Looking forward to the post. I did a post on that a while back and while I don’t have the any skill with words and tend to have some (or lots of) ire in my voice – I do think that if you don’t want to be parents first and foremost – you will find those who do it for show at the far end of the spectrum, and often those children are mistreated – right through to the terrible cases like Hana Williams etc.

    Have been a big fan of David Smolin for years and all that he has done to try to make ethics a primary focus in international adoption. Your post above does provide a plausible reason why his message does not get heard.

    Thanks for engaging…

    1. michaelfunderburk

      I would love to read you post on this topic–especially coming from you as an adoptee. Glad we share a affinity for Smolin’s work. I just discovered him, relatively recently, through my wife’s reading.

  3. my husband’s idea – let’s develop orthodoxy (right theological frameworks) that clearly support and result in orthopraxis (right behavior)….i only understand about 50% of all the above ideas and linked-to-ideas, but I’m truly fascinated by the discussion and wish we could all spend a long weekend together hashing this all out with prayer, careful study, and long discussions….anyways, thank you michael, dan cruver, david smolin, all of you writing and thinking, and pressing through the details of this theological discussion and more imporantly, how this theological thrust is affecting the Christian orphan care movement and the larger church as a whole as we see to respond to poverty and the broken-ness of the world in a comprehensive and best-practices kind of way. The VAST majority of people are not going to read all these complicated posts, etc – most of them are just going to hear the concept of the “theology of adoption” and have an emotional-gut-level response that very often leads to a simplistic “call to adopt” or support adoption instead of a call to participate in God’s redemption/restoration through prioritizing poverty reduction, family reunification, indigenous placements, etc, with int’l adoption as a last resort after other options have truly been given a chance…I think any time anyone talks about the theology of adoption, they need to spend a significant chunk of time talking about what this does and does not mean on the horizontal/application level…I went to the Together for Adoption conference in Atlanta this past fall after reading smolin/cruver’s conversations. I know now through conversations with Cruver that it was not intended to be a huge “let’s get all these needy kids adopted” thrust, but nonetheless, in my opinion, that was a huge takeaway for most people…i.e. “God has adopted me, so I should do all I can to adopt and get others to as well.” I’m not against adoption. It’s a very important piece in the puzzle of responses needed to children in crisis. It can just so easily rise to the top at the expense of other options that deserve more attention. I want to see more adoption agencies not functioning in isolation but as a part of a larger non-profit/development strategy that holds int’l adoption in its appropriate place in the care framework – truly only adopting out kids after all other options have been exhausted in a timely fashion with thorough social work – I’m seeing more and more of this pop up….ichild’s foundation, bethany in ethiopia??, tell me who you know of!! I’m looking for model programs as I work in my own small way toward more development and reform in the DRC.

    1. michaelfunderburk

      I agree, Mary–about the gut level reaction folks have but also about T4A’s intentions. I think if you read further back into the T4A blog archives, you’ll see that Dan tries to make a case that T4A is not just about adoption, or child placement, but that it’s also for reunification, etc. I believe him, and that’s why I wrote this post–because the majority of the rhetoric, I think, leads one to believe that T4A is only about child placement–or as you say, that’s the take away one comes away with from the language that is emphasized. I appreciate Dan’s more recent post where he writes to clarify T4A’s position. I think that is an important step in the right direction.

      If I hear of any model programs, I will let you know. Jana, is the one, really, with her “ear to the ground,” learning about programs like you’re talking about. Unfortunately, my involvement so far has been only on a theological level.

      Anyway,thanks for reading and caring. Maybe all these different groups could meet some day and get a chance to talk about these things. That would be great!

  4. I just read Dan Cruver’s blog post for today
    and line-up of breakout sessions at the upcoming conference and am just struggling to make sense of it all and to put into my own words why I am so unsettled by it ….anyways, I’m glad you seem better at finding your words…and thanks for encouraging me by example to find my own in good time…

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