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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.

But beyond that, the metaphor breaks down quickly. A literal application would mean that all "natural born" children need to be redeemed from an existence of slavery to the sinful forces of evil. Therefore, every woman should relinquish their child for adoption into a "better life" as a "true heir" of a better, more pure family for which they were intended from the beginning of time. Paul himself writes that any comparison between Hagar, the "slave woman," and Sarah, the "free woman" is figurative.[xxiii]

Is there something redemptive about rescuing a true orphan from a life of poverty and giving the child a loving home, a name, and an inheritance? Of course. But twisting compassion for orphans into an entitlement to another woman's baby in order to fulfill one's own dreams of parenthood too often leads to King Solomon's solution: a split baby.[xxiv] Note that, in the famous story, in which both mothers were prostitutes, it was the non-biological mother whose selfish desire made her willing to lie and see the other woman's son cut in two. This is not intended in any way as a generalization about parents by birth or adoption, but simply another illustration of how the spiritual metaphor breaks down and should only be applied to modern adoption on a limited scope with careful thought and great caution.

Money vs. Love

Paul wrote to the younger minister Timothy, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil."[xxv] Despite its "non-profit" banner, private adoption in particular has become fertile ground for reaping profits from corrupt, deceitful, or even "gray market" practices. Even in the days when adoptive parents like mine paid a total records fee of $10.00 to the state, baby selling and covert arrangements were taking place. Today, even agencies that claim to be Christian have been scolded by courts for seeking to terminate a father's parental rights in a jurisdiction other than where he lives in order to proceed unhindered with the "placement" (read: sale).

In his Pulitzer-nominated book Adoption Nation, adoptive father Adam Pertman devotes an entire chapter to the subject of money in adoption. The fine lines between adoption and human trafficking are not so fine. Commentators have pointed out that Jesus had much more to say about money than he did about sex, summing it up with, "You cannot serve both God and money."[xxvi] The business of adoption poses a very grave danger to the love that supposedly drives it. Selling children for large sums of money above reasonable administrative costs, no matter how it is rationalized, is child trafficking and tantamount to slavery.

Pain vs. Purpose

So what do we do with all the pain inflicted by people who claimed to be representing God? For those of us in the adoption reform community, who have been on the receiving end of practices ranging from well-intentioned but short-sighted at best, to vicious, judgmental greed masquerading as "God's will," it is a daunting challenge not to become cynical or abandon one's faith altogether. There is a growing backlash that equates adoption with trauma and calls for its abolition altogether.

While emotionally satisfying for some, this is unrealistic. Adoption in its various forms has been around for thousands of years and is not going away. No matter how much we work to minimize loss, trauma, corruption and lies, there will always be children without parents -- for whatever reason; war, disease, abandonment, prison, etc. -- who need loving homes. Such disruption of family connections brings unavoidable pain and challenges. But consider the possibility that the point of life is not to avoid pain. Unlike the television "prosperity gospel" charlatans who portray God as a celestial vending machine, the Book makes it clear that no one gets to skip through life unscathed.[xxvii] Everyone gets a pebble in their shoe. As one meme circulating around social media says, "We're all broken. That's what lets the light in."

And much as we might want to believe that "God's plan" is for all mothers to raise the children they give birth to, scripture provides some notable exceptions. Moses was raised in Pharaoh's household to prepare him for leading the children of Israel out of captivity. Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. He had no way of knowing that it would ultimately serve to elevate him to a position from which he could help Israel during a famine. Despite his great suffering, his character overcame his circumstances and he was able to tell his brothers upon their emotional reunion, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.."[xxviii] Esther was an orphan raised by her uncle Mordecai. She ended up marrying a king and thwarting a plot to destroy her people, given courage by her uncle's words, "Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?"[xxix]

Though the vast majority of us are not in positions of national influence, every adoptee and parent by birth or adoption has their own "hero's journey" to navigate. We cannot undo the past. We may never fully resolve the grief and pain, but if we allow it to be our primary focus, we are almost certainly missing opportunities to effect good. We can only humbly acknowledge what is, and work for a better future inspired by those who have overcome great adversity and made some positive difference in their sphere of influence, whether great or small.

Part of that difference can start by calling religious leaders to a better theology of adoption.

[i] Eph. 4:15

[ii] John 8:32

[iii] Rev. 21:8

[iv][iv] Zech. 7:10, Mal. 3:5

[v] James 2:13

[vi] Ps. 85:10

[vii][vii] I Cor. 5:18, Gal. 5:19

[viii] John 8:11

[ix] Rom. 3:21-25, Gal. 3:10-14

[x] Ps. 51

[xi] II Sam. 12:14-31

[xii][xii] James 5:16, I John 1:8-10

[xiii] James 1:27

[xiv] Gen. 12-17

[xv] Ex. 19-24

[xvi] Ex. 28-29

[xvii] II Sam. 7

[xviii] Matt. 1:16, Luke 3

[xix] Rom. 9:4

[xx] Eph. 1:15

[xxi] Gal. 4:5-7

[xxii] Rom. 8:23

[xxiii] Gal. 4:24

[xxiv] I Kings 3:16-28

[xxv] I Tim. 6:10

[xxvi] Luke16:13

[xxvii] I Peter 3:17, 4:1

[xxviii] Gen. 50:20

[xxix] Esther 4:14

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