Updated: Apr 29, 2022
I’ve just finished reading the Journal of Christian Legal Thought, Spring 2012 issue. At this point, you are about to click off this post and go back to your Facebook newsfeed to see photos of cute kids and watch cat videos. Please don’t, just yet.
I fear the beginning of a divide between the good people of this world who care deeply about children in crisis, specifically orphans. To be clear, I’m defining orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents through death, or has been relinquished by a parent. I’m adamant about not getting technical when it comes to the definition of orphan because a child who is without a family feels like an orphan. Perception, folks, is reality. The Journal highlights dissenting opinions between those who defend the Christian adoption and orphan care movement, and those who believe that the theological analysis undergirding the evangelical adoption and orphan care movement is erroneous and dangerous for children and families.
Put simply: it’s an argument between those who feel mandated by Scripture to care for orphans, and those who feel uncomfortable with that approach.
I come at this issue with a bias – on both sides of the dissent. My husband is Vice President of an international adoption agency – a Christian international adoption agency. Also, we have adopted internationally and, so far, our daughter is happy and thriving. Also, I think Scripture should move us to action, and I have no problem taking James 1:27 as a mandate. Oh, and because of the church I attend, I wear the label of evangelical Christian.
But I’m biased on the other side of the dissent as well. I’m a cynic when it comes to evangelical “movements” in general. I believe that Scripture can, and is, often tossed around to justify and perpetuate our own political and social agendas. Interestingly, Jesus was silent on the issues that evangelicals are most vehement about, and spoke passionately about things we stay silent about. Evangelicals sometimes embarrass and anger me. So I don’t typically jump on the bandwagon of everything that evangelicals deem to be crucial social issues.
Also, I have a bit of bias since I am adopted. It’s one of those circa mid-1960s closed adoptions, which means I have two birth certificates – one that I have seen, and one that is sealed in a court of law that I have never laid eyes on. It’s “as if” my birth mother never existed. There is little about this arrangement I find appealing, but as the adoptee I don’t have the legal right to open the sealed court records. No one does. So when those who are critical of adoption (especially closed, “as if” adoptions) speak out, I find myself shuffling over to their side.
So for me, this is complicated. But it’s also complicated for a guy named David Smolin, who is a Professor of Constitutional Law and Director of the Center for Biotechnology, Law and Ethics at Samford University’s College of Law. He writes exhaustively on this issue and comes down on the side of those who are uncomfortable with the evangelical adoption movement. And I sympathize with him. He and his wife adopted two older girls from India, only to discover after the adoptions were finalized that the girls had been trafficked. Their impoverished mother had placed them in the orphanage as a temporary solution, but the orphanage had illegally adopted them out. Trafficking is ultimately the bottom line concern of all who would seek to end or curtail international adoption. Those who have been damaged by international adoption (and many who haven’t) continue to squirm as evangelicals point to Scripture when advocating for adoption as one answer to the crisis. On the surface, James 1:27 is simple. What does God ask us to do that represents Him in the purest form? Care for the most vulnerable people – the ones others ignore or exploit. There you go. Now that’s something to sink your life into. Except…in our world today, it’s just not that simple.
Smolin brings up points that should not be glossed over in our efforts to offer up our purest form of God-honoring activities in the realm of intercountry adoption: There have been systematic abuses such as child trafficking, child laundering, and falsification of documents on the part of both some sending and receiving agencies. There are most certainly bad apples in the world of adoption agencies, and even the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption has not been successful in eradicating these abusive practices. They are few and far between, but they are the squeaky wheel that gets greased, sometimes in the form of our our State Department shutting down entire countries (Nepal, Guatemala, Vietnam). And yes, it is often hard to define when intercountry adoption is an appropriate intervention – what children are truly in need?
Here’s an example of that particular complication: UNICEF and folks like Smolin will tell you that if there is any kinship options available for a child in the birth country, this is the second-best option if the birthparents have died or the child has been relinquished. So take the case of one little girl in Uganda named Mary. Her parents died of AIDS and so she went to live with her uncle in a nearby village. Someone could have come along and said, “We know of families in other countries who will adopt AIDS orphans.” But those who believe that culture and kinship trump everything would shake their heads and send Mary off to live with the uncle. Which is what happened. In the course of a three-year period, Mary was raped repeatedly by her uncle and several cousins. The tiny bit of property that was rightfully hers is really what the uncle wanted. He had no interest in raising Mary, and eventually he threw her out into the streets when enough time had passed that her property became his. Mary was 10 years old. He began raping her when she was seven. She has been physically damaged so much that she will never bear children, and she has nothing left that was rightfully hers after her birthparents died. Of course, no one could have known what was going to occur when Mary went to live with her uncle, but to brush the kinship option with such broad strokes misses some cultural realities. In not every culture is kinship a sure-fire second best option. Sometimes it is, but when it isn’t, it can ruin a child’s life.
Sweeping generalities about intercountry adoption – in either direction – cause us to forget that every situation is unique. Sometimes adoption is the best option for a child. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes child trafficking is obvious. Sometimes it isn’t. And sometimes God gives us clear direction on how to carry out James 1:27, and other times He doesn’t. I have felt conflicted about these issues many times over the past several years. We adopted our daughter almost eleven years ago, and then learned about the orphan crisis. Our adoption of Alison was not because we were moved by James 1:27. We just felt our family was incomplete and something kept leading us to China. Now, however, I’m deeply involved in the issue of the orphan crisis and I am passionately moved by James 1:27. But I’m often unsure what to do with that passion. I see both sides. I think intercountry adoption can be a beautiful solution, and it is most certainly a picture of how we have been adopted by God. But it isn’t the only, or even the best long-term solution to the orphan crisis in our world. Those who are passionate about caring for orphans should be equally intentional about finding a more encompassing way to do this. William Sloane Coffin Jr. said, “To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.” I think people on both sides of the international adoption discussion can agree on this one.
As an adoptive mother of a daughter from China and someone who is grieved by 147 million orphans (at least), I am concerned about the broken structures that continue to cause the orphan crisis. I want to find a way to help repair those broken structures. I believe that’s what Jesus came to do, and then He left His followers to walk the same path. Perhaps, in the end, this is the bigger picture of what it means to “care for orphans.” And maybe, this is where we find the purest form of our religion.