Toward a Better Adoption Theology

"Return to the land of your fathers; blood calls to blood." - Horton Deakins

Religions worldwide appear to be in agreement on at least one idea when it comes to family: Tribe and ancestry matter. Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism all feature some form of ancestor worship or filial piety. Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Native American traditions honor ancestral ties and rituals.

If developing and maintaining a sense of connection to our roots is a common human drive, how did the dominant Christian adoption philosophy stray so far from its own roots in Judaism, and how do modern beliefs and assumptions need to shift toward a healthier paradigm? This piece, written from a Judeo-Christian perspective, will discuss five areas in which modern adoption theology and philosophy has been out of balance -- or simply wrong and damaging -- and offer suggested alternatives.

First, a couple of disclaimers:

1) As a flawed human with incomplete, skewed perspectives on anything that the Judeo-Christian God might be thinking, these ideas are offered as general thoughts and principles that call for feedback and discussion.

2) Entire books have been written on this subject, therefore the scope of what can be addressed in this space is, to say the least, limited.

Truth vs. Lies

Though modern adoption policy and practice are increasingly recognizing the importance of truth and transparency in adoption, there is still a long way to go, and there are foundational beliefs to examine and rework. Somewhere along the way, Christian and other adoption professionals decided that it was acceptable, even desirable, to sever a relinquished and adopted human being from their story and heritage, ostensibly to "protect" us from unsavory, shameful or perceived immoral details of our origins. While this sounds well-intentioned, the crazy-making void of information has, in many cases, proven to be more damaging than giving adult adoptees the opportunity -- and credit for being able -- to process the truth, which is usually much less disturbing than our persistent worst fantasies.

This one is uncomplicated. The truth, spoken in love[i], sets us free[ii], though it can be painful (more about pain later). Liars face a future in "the fiery lake of burning sulfur."[iii] Robbing adoptees of their history and their ancestry is one of the most egregious forms of oppression of orphans and the fatherless. God is unambiguous about his attitude toward people who engage in such practices.[iv] There will be consequences, whether in this life or the next. Christian adoption professionals: please dismantle any systems and processes that cultivate secrets and lies. Now. The well-being of your clients, and that of your eternal soul may well depend on it.

Mercy vs. Judgment

The history of religion records an ever-swinging pendulum from one extreme to the other, often missing the tension-filled place of faith where "mercy triumphs over judgment"[v], and "righteousness and peace kiss"[vi]. Some groups have historically placed a special emphasis on sexual behavior[vii] while minimizing other sins listed in the same scriptural context, and ignoring the fact that Jesus refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery, but instead urged her to change her lifestyle.[viii] The long-held notion that surrendering a baby for adoption is somehow redemptive, or serves as appropriate penance or atonement for unchecked sexual urges, is not only cruel and punitive; it is heresy.[ix]

The point of God's offer of grace and forgiveness through Christ is that human penitence cannot atone for misdeeds. At the same time, even King David, called a "man after God's own heart," was not exempt from personal responsibility for his actions[x] and had to face great grief and anguish.[xi] His adultery with Bathsheba, followed by his arrangement of her husband's death on the front lines and subsequent loss of the baby created by the affair, left an irreversible lifelong impact. Though some religious adoption workers have been quick to offer harsh judgments, it is often our own consciences and inner accusations that leave us most wounded. David's ownership of his role in the series of events opened the door to healing and forgiveness.[xii]

Spiritual Metaphor vs. Temporal Reality

Though James wrote that "religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in distress…",[xiii] infant adoption as we know it today did not exist in ancient Israel. Its historical roots are found in ancient Babylonian and Sumerian civilizations, wherein a man without offspring in need of an heir would adopt an adult male. The Greek word huiothesia is translated, "to place a son."

The Yahweh of the Hebrew scriptures established connection to one's lineage -- knowledge of one's "tribe" and ancestry -- as essential. This is evidenced by the fact that virtually every major covenant He made with key leaders like Abraham[xiv]; Moses[xv]; the priestly covenants with Aaron, Levi and their sons[xvi]; and David[xvii] included not only the individual, but also "your seed/offspring/descendants." Christian writers make it a point to trace Jesus' paternal[xviii] lineage through the tribe of Judah in order to fulfill prophecy regarding the Messiah.

Further, karet, or being "cut off" from one's people and lineage, is a biblical punishment for a varied litany of sins. Why should adult adoptees be cut off from their ancestry and heritage simply because of the circumstances of their birth, or because one or both parents could not raise them? Biblical "adoptees" like Moses, Esther and Samuel who were raised by non-biological parents still knew their ancestry and heritage. Though Hebrew law (but not Christian teaching) barred someone of "illegitimate birth" and their descendants from the assembly of the the Lord,(Deut. 23:2), shame over the circumstances of someone's conception does not appear to be a reason to sever a child from its ancestry in scripture.

The apostle Paul uses a form of the word huiothesia five times in the New Testament as a metaphor for a covenant relationship based on a promise between God and both the Jews[xix] and Gentiles (non-Jews)[xx] and the ultimate hope of redemption and an inheritance[xxi] in heaven.[xxii] It is a beautiful picture of how unconditional love and grace can transform a life.