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.

Orphan Care is Not Enough: Part 1


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.

Orphan Care is Not Enough: Part 2

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.

Orphan Care is Not Enough: Part 3


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.