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.

“Cosmetic Solutions”? Some Thoughts about Dan Cruver’s Series on Unethical Adoption

I agree with Dan Cruver that when all is said and done, God will put “the world and the universe to rights,” as he says in part two of his blog series on unethical adoption at the Together for Adoption blog.  I, too, believe that there is a “cosmic” solution to the orphan crisis that, on this side of things, I can only imagine but not see. And I believe that we are living out a grand narrative which God is authoring and consequently, we have only a partial knowledge of God’s grand design for the world and how he is going to renew and recreate it someday.  I agree that we should let that larger narrative of God’s redemptive drama influence how we view the world and the darkness therein.

But when I read the following in Part 3 of Cruver’s series on unethical adoption, I had to do a double take:

“If all we really focus on is fixing the broken systems that perpetuate unethical adoptions, we’ll never arrive at permanent solutions. The world we live in is systemically and profoundly broken. We who began our existence in this world by being born into it can’t fix it. No way in ‘hell’ will we ever be able to fix it. The brokenness of our world is so broken that no one who comes to the world from within the world can fix it. Impossible. Our world’s long history is irrefutable evidence of that very fact. As long as we are the ones who are in charge of coming up with solutions, we’re in trouble; or should I say, ‘Orphan and vulnerable children are in trouble’?”

As I read Cruver’s words in this passage, two words kept popping into my head: eschatological fatalism.  Cruver’s language here suggests that because man is so sinful and because the brokenness of the world can only be “fixed” by God’s supernatural power, then we might as well just accept the status quo as we wait for Jesus to come back and fix everything.  This is God’s “cosmic solution” to the brokenness we see all around us–including unethical adoption and child trafficking.

But is Cruver not aware that in Scripture, while we are called to “wait upon the Lord,” we also called to “kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight” (thank you, Bruce Cockburn, for that apt language).  Has he read the OT prophets? Or Jesus haunting words about what our judgment will be based on in the end (Did we feed the hungry, clothes the naked, visit the imprisoned?).  Is he not aware that a true biblical understanding of the church views her members as God’s agents of new creation in the world, and that, while the rescue of the world may not rest upon their shoulders, God chooses to use their efforts to spread the influence of his Kingdom throughout the world?  Throughout his three posts on unethical adoption, Cruver is guilty of missing the trees because he’s been made privy to a view of the forest.  His bird’s-eye-view, “redemptive-historical” understanding of the Bible has caused him to gloss over some of these finer points and nuances of Scripture.

One last thought.

In my last post, I tried to highlight the fact that Evangelicals, who, historically, have not possessed a theology of justice to allow them really to deal with corruption and child trafficking (due to their Fundamentalist heritage), are, today, struggling to face these serious matters 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?  

In my previous post, I answered that question by saying that lacking this apparatus has led Evangelicals involved in the orphan care movement to focus narrowly on orphans at the expense of the larger grid within which caring for orphans exists: social justice.

In my mind, Cruver’s recent post only confirms this interpretation (unfortunately).  Even in the quotation above, I detect in Cruver’s language the old fundamentalist suspicion about seeking social justice–that it’s somehow separate from the “real” Gospel, which is all about how people get reborn and get into heaven.  Therefore, seeking to eradicate child trafficking smacks too much of the old liberal “social gospel” of the early to mid 20th century, he seems to be suggesting in this fatalistic passage.  Whether Cruver means to or not, to me, he’s implying that focusing on social issues like corruption and child trafficking is diametrically opposed to saving souls, and that unless we worry about saving souls first, then we may as well forget about striving for justice for orphans.  Does he mean to say this?  I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and answer, “Probably not,” but it’s difficult not to end up with such an interpretation when he writes the way he does in the passage above.  The old dichotomy between doing good in the world and saving souls is latent in his language.

The problem with this (admittedly) alleged assumption in Cruver’s theology is that Scripture doesn’t warrant a Gospel that seeks only to save souls while allowing this material world–bodies included–to remain unredeemed.  We’re not just souls after all but bodies as well–bodies that were affirmed in the Incarnation and the Resurrection.  Therefore, our lives here on this earth matter–and so do those of the poor and the injustices they face.  Surely the Gospel that we are to promulgate is not only a Gospel of words but also of good deeds–cups of cool water for the thirsty, bandages for the wounded, justice for those who are vulnerable and threatened by abused power (cf. Matt. 25.31-46 and Titus 3.1-8, especially v. 8)

The ultimate problem with Cruver’s theological assumptions here is one that C.S. Lewis emphasized in Mere Christianity when we wrote,

“[God] uses material things like bread and wine to put new life into us. We may think that rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”

While Lewis is writing in defense of the Eucharist here, the principle behind what he writes speaks to the age old problem of spirit vs. matter, soul vs. body–the problem the Fundamentalist faces by emphasizing the spirit, the soul, and the divine over matter, the body, and the human.  Lewis’ point is that God has always used the material world to reveal himself.  Whether it was a burning bush, a donkey, the tabernacle, the sacrificial system, or ultimately, Jesus himself, God has made use of the seemingly mundane and the “crude” to show us not just more of himself, but also more of what we are meant to be as humans.

From the suspicions about social engagement I detect in his language, Cruver seems to be missing this fundamental incarnational element in his theology, and consequently, he is dangerously close to implying that because souls are all that really matter, focusing on justice for orphans and their families–on their lives in the here and now–in the end, does not matter.  I don’t think he means to imply this, but based on what I’ve read, it’s difficult not to take what he writes to this logical end.

Finally, I think the overall issue with what Cruver is writing in this series of posts, which is not unrelated to my first point above, is that he is reading into Scripture something that simply is not there. When he writes that

God’s cosmic scope of Adoption, though, will ultimately solve the global orphan crisis because it’s how our Triune God is putting the world and universe to rights (enjoying my use of this British idiom, “putting to rights”? I sure enjoy using it!). When that Day finally breaks into our broken world—when God’s work of Adoption is consummated—everything will be unimaginably better than we can even begin to imagine now.

What does it mean that “God is putting the world and universe to rights” through “Adoption”?  This is never made clear or explained in Cruver’s posts and from what I can see, is never made clear in Scripture–that is, that the language of adoption is used in Scripture to describe God’s overall plan to rescue the world is either not clear or not there at all. Even from a biblical theological perspective, I don’t think one can say this. In this regard, I would point anyone interested to David Smolin’s “Of Orphans and Adoption, Parents and the Poor, Exploitation and Rescue,” where he makes the case that “the concept of ‘adoption’ is not necessary to the communication of the gospel, as almost all of the New Testament, including Jesus, the authors of the Gospels and Acts, Peter, James, and John all communicate the gospel quite effectively without referring to adoption” (p. 308).  Smolin also shows that when Paul uses the metaphor for adoption in his New Testament letters, he is using the concept of adoption common to ancient Rome, which was actually the adoption of an adult male by Roman emperors in order to ensure they had the heir of their choosing.  Smolin makes a compelling case that Paul uses this metaphor in order to “communicate to gentile, Roman Christians the immeasurably high honor and unfathomably great inheritance they possess as co-heirs with Jesus, the son of God” (p. 309).  Reading our contemporary image of adoption (i.e. impoverished orphan child being taken in by a family of means) back into the text distorts Paul’s meaning, he argues (Smolin has many more insights into a biblical understanding of adoption, and I highly encourage you to read his essay).

Taking the biblical text in this more exegetical way, I think, prepares us for the hard work of working as faithful witnesses in a dark world.  We must be careful not to read into Scripture something it never intended to say, and I think, in this case, doing so, will allow us to see combatting child trafficking and corruption as no mere “cosmetic solution,” as Cruver calls it.  In fact, in the great drama of redemption, seeking to combat such darkness is done with the knowledge that such darkness has already been dispelled with Christ’s victory over death, a victory that we bear witness to through our good works, which are “profitable for everyone” (Titus 3.8).  We are to be people who are concerned with public matters–fighting for justice, combatting human trafficking, promoting human rights–knowing that faithfully acting in the public sphere, in light of Christ’s victory over death and darkness, will mean something in the end, when God’s “cosmic” purposes for the world are revealed.