Though I’ve met few who would boldly assert such a frank belief, it is clear to many that the way we often approach and speak of international adoption betrays a core perception of the Western world as better. Better in terms of materialism, privilege, and interestingly, faith.
In church circles adoption comes with the apparent added benefit (or sometimes sole purpose) of adding children to the kingdom of God. Of demonstrating our spiritual adoption by adopting them into our families, by teaching Jesus to them, by assimilating them into our church culture. There’s an assumed guarantee that they will become Christians. And there’s a rarely-explored assumption that their culture and family of origin is without God.
To this, I must share a revealing quote by David Smolin in his relevant article, “Moving from Fad to Fundamentals: The Future of the Evangelical Christian Adoption and Orphan Care Movement”:
“It is a huge step backward for American evangelicals to view foreign nations and cultures as simple embodiments of spiritual darkness and the United States as some kind of Kingdom of God. In fact, evangelicals have become far more aware in recent years of a role reversal in which most Christians in the world live in the global South, while Christianity often struggles in the West and global North. Practically speaking, many adoptions occur from nations such as Ethiopia, South Korea, and Uganda where the church is vibrant.“
And John Piper:
“Christian adoption disavows that growing up Western and middle class is necessarily better than growing up non-western and poor. Rather, we affirm that there is no sure corollary between prosperity and character, “high” culture and human happiness, Western values and wise living; God can and does make poverty a garden of love.”
Melanie Springer Moch:
This is a point it seems some evangelicals, swept up in the adoption ministry movement, are less willing to hear: that living in a comfortable Christian home, with all the accoutrements of Western wealth and privilege, may not be the best outcome for vulnerable children. Quite honestly, it’s hard for me to hear. I’d like to believe my sons’ best life is in my home, and not with their first families, in their birth countries. But Christians committed to justice and equity need to remember we are not entitled to other people’s children, no matter how poor or powerless those people might be; and many times the best possible place for a child to grow up is with his birth family, in his birth culture, even if that family—and culture—is poorer and less developed than ours.”
Smolin’s point about the vibrant faith in impoverished and persecuted countries struck a chord, made a connection I hadn’t before. It’s been commonplace for us to talk about how the church flourishes under trial and oppression. We talk in bible classes and studies and sermons about the negative effect affluence and freedom can have on faith, how it’s a real struggle for all of us sitting inthe comfy church pews of America to have tangible, real, felt zeal and love and thirst for God and his word and his mission. We know this, I hope. But I’d never considered the implications for international adoption, especially in light of the knowledge we have about the misleading UNICEF numbers.
When we begin to see physical adoption as representative of our spiritual adoption, another problem arises, and that is the completion of the analogy: adoptees then are being “saved” by American Christians out of the sin, darkness, and enslavement of their families and cultures of origin. Adoptive parents are reinforced as saviors and angels, and the United States as a sort of Promised Land. This minimizes talk about the loss experienced by adoptees and their families and deepens the stigma surrounding birth families.
Though there are many older, traumatized, ill children who truly are without any family and are in need of adoption, there are many more children whose families are struggling in poverty and who are being exploited rather than helped so they can have each other. No doubt the secular belief that hardship and suffering are to be avoided at all costs has colored our faith, which teaches us that we draw nearer to God and we conform to Christ in times of hardship and trial. That trials are blessings. That God uses affliction to loosen that which seeks to tether us to this earth. Have we even considered the likely possibility that many of these are families of faith?
Don’t misunderstand. We aren’t called to leave people in their destitution. And I’m also not saying, “Oh, if they aren’t Christians, then nevermind.” On the contrary, we should join in the flood of godly people throughout history and the Bible who entered into the sufferings of others and helped alleviate their needs. Not by extracting their children and leaving them broken and still in need. But by bearing their burden with them. Showing Jesus to them in a present and real way.