Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Dismantling the Theological/Scriptural Bases of the Christian Adoption Movement

David Smolin (whose work I've cited here and here and here) has a new law review article coming out: Of Orphans & Adoption, Parents & the Poor, Exploitation & Rescue:  A Scriptural & Theological Critique of the Evangelical Christian Adoption & Orphan Care Movement.  You can download a draft here.   

Before getting to the substance of the article, I want to make a few points.  First, Professor Smolin teaches at Samford University, which is a Baptist-affiliated college that lists as one of its core values "belief in God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord." Second, the article is being published by the Regent International Law Review.  Regent University, founded by the evangelist Pat Robertson,  says its mission is "to serve as a leading center of Christian thought and action providing an excellent education from a Biblical perspective," and lists Christ-centeredness as its first value. Thus, I think it is safe to say that this critique comes from within the evangelical Christian community, not from outside it.  I think that's an important point to note. Also, I think it is important to note that Professor Smolin is an adoptive parent; you can read a bit about his experience of adopting from India here.

As to the substance of the article, Professor Smolin describes it as follows:
The primary purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that the scriptural and theological analysis undergirding the evangelical adoption and orphan care movement is patently and seriously erroneous.  Thus, this essay will demonstrate that, based on the standards, methods, and presuppositions broadly shared by evangelical Christians in analyzing scripture and theology, the evangelical adoption movement’s specific analysis of concepts such as “adoption” and “orphans” has been seriously deficient and has produced conclusions that are demonstrably false.     The second purpose of this essay will be to indicate that these errors of scriptural and theological analysis have produced, and are producing, practices that in scriptural and Biblical terms would be called “sinful” and in more secular language can be called exploitative. 
And the professor brilliantly delivers on that description! After a cogent description of the Christian adoption movement and its theoretical and scriptural foundation, he systematically dismantles that foundation.  First, he explains the modern American version of adoption:
In addition, from a legal perspective the Christian adoption movement presumes the kind of adoption which exists in the United States, which in comparative law terms is called full adoption.   Full adoption involves a complete legal transference of the child from the original family to the adoptive family, so that after the adoption the child is a legal stranger to their original father, mother, siblings, and all other relatives, while being a full member of the adoptive family.   Full adoption generally involves both a new name and a new identity for the child.   In the version in existence in a majority of states within the United States, the law implements an “as if,” closed records system.  Under this system, the original birth certificate and court records are sealed.  Hence, adult adoptees are not permitted to discover their original name, identity, and family members and the original parents are not permitted to discover the adoptive identity of the adoptee.   Thus, the law of the United States builds the protection and legitimacy of adoptive relationships upon the legal destruction and suppression of the original family relationships.   Adoptive relationships in this system are designed to copy biological family relationships; since biological family relationships are exclusive—one mother and father per child---the same exclusivity is expected in adoptive relationships.   The only way to achieve this kind of exclusivity is to deny that “birth” mothers and fathers are truly mothers and fathers, leaving the adoptive mother and father as the only true parents.  The evangelical Christian adoption and orphan care movement has not critiqued the legal system of adoption within the United States, but instead presupposes it as the normative form of adoption, which can create expectations and presuppositions that minimize the significance of original family relationships for adopted persons.
Second, starting with Jewish law and the Old Testament, he shows that no such adoption existed in that time.  He illustrates how many examples relied upon as adoption by the movement -- Moses, most prominently -- are far different from adoption as we know it.

Third, Professor Smolin turns to the New Testament's portrayals of adoption, since the New Testament is the focus of the evangelical Christian adoption movement. He finds no more support there for the adoption movement than in the Old Testament.  He notes that one of the stories relied upon -- Joseph's "adoption" of Jesus -- is completely unlike adoption:
If Joseph had “adopted” Jesus in the modern sense this would have required the repudiation of God’s fatherhood of Jesus, for God would be the “birth” father.  Joseph, who was informed in a dream prior to the marriage that Jesus was the child of the Holy Spirit, surely did not intend this kind of displacement.  Jesus Himself makes it clear, even in his childhood, that he answered ultimately to God his father, explaining his disappearance to Joseph and Mary by explaining that he had to “be about My Father’s business:” indeed, Jesus admonishes Joseph and Mary that they should have known this already.  Since the Father-Son relationship between God the Father and Jesus is one of the primary themes of the New Testament and a basic part of Christian orthodoxy, it is spiritually obscene to envision Joseph’s act as an adoption in the modern sense.  
Further, Smolin questions how central the concept of adoption can be to Christianity when Jesus never used the term or the concept, nor did the gospel writers, nor did any other writer in the Bible, with the exception of Paul.  Professsor Smolin then deconstructs the biblical references to adoption in the letters of Paul. He identifies five specific verses, saying, "It is primarily from these five references, that the Christian adoption movement has sought to build an entire edifice of theology and practice."  He carefully analyzes each one,   first noting that there is serious question about whether the Greek word used by Paul can even be considered a reference to adoption.  Then, accepting for the sake of argument that the references are to adoption, Smolin deconstructs them.
First, he notes that Paul was Roman and that there was a concept of adoption under Roman law, unlike Jewish law.  Second, the letters with adoption references were to peoples under Roman rule, who would also have been familiar with the Roman concept of adoption.  From this, he concludes that Paul was using a familiar concept as a metaphor.  Still, the Roman concept of adoption bears no relation to modern concepts of adoption; it was merely a way to secure a legal heir for inheritance purposes when a family lacked a legitimate male heir. Third, if Paul's referent was to Greek adoption, it, too, bore no resemblance to modern American adoption as embraced by the Christian adoption movement:
[A] fundamental point is that neither Roman nor Greek adoption was focused on the adoption of child orphans.  Adoption generally had nothing to do with providing for the weak, the poor, dependents, or children.   Adoption took young adult males who generally had families and a position in society, and gave them a social promotion to a higher position in society through provision of a new legal identity; in exchange, the adopted adult fulfilled the responsibilities and duties of a son and heir of a great family, whether that meant leading the empire or managing an upper class, noble household.   While it was theoretically possible to adopt a young child, such was rarely done, since such a child was unprepared to lead the empire or family and his capacities to do so in the future were still unknown. 
Indeed, adoption in the Greco-Roman context was not even about providing a family for an adult “orphan.”  The men “adopted” by the Roman emperors generally were already related to those emperors through combinations of blood and marriage (their own and that of their mothers) in addition to their adoptions.   The distinctive purpose of adoption within this web of family relationships was to make them heirs to the empire, not to provide them with a family.
Professor Smolin does a similarly devastating critique of the orphan care part of the movement, noting that the biblical prescription to help widows and the fatherless/orphans presupposed them to be family unit -- a mother and child -- that was to remain a family unit.  Indeed, he says Scripture emphasizes the care of widows over the care of orphans. 
But what difference does it make if the Christian adoption movement gets it wrong theologically and scripturally?  Professor Smolin addresses this question as well:

For the Christian adoption movement, it is as though criticisms of adoption, the adoption movement, or adoption practices constitute a rejection of the foundational Christian gospel message.

Unfortunately, this perspective renders the adoption movement as astonishingly uncritical   Any activity or movement unable to be self-critical inevitably becomes destructive and blind to its own errors.   Thus, one of the fundamental harms of the Christian adoption movement has been so closely equating the modern practice of horizontal adoption with the gospel as to make criticism of such practices impermissible, contributing to an adoption system that lacks accountability and lacks practices, habits, and mechanisms of self-correction.
Professor Smolin also faults the movement for exploiting widows and the poor while seeking to assist orphans, demeaning the importance of original families, for encouraging adoption in situations where it may be inappropriate by employing inaccurate information about "orphans," and for its failure "to embrace the Biblical worldview where most forms of assistance to the “fatherless” or “orphan” do not involve adoption."
Professor Smolin offers his critique with the purpose of stimulating debate and dialogue WITHIN the evangelical Christian movement, and as I noted above, as an insider.  He states of the theological and scriptural claims of the movement, "It would not be wise or prudent to receive such a strong set of new theological claims without examination." This article is a respectful but devastating critique of the evangelical Christian adoption movement, and as an insider, Professor Smolin uses the master's tools to dismantle the master's house. 


Anonymous said...

Quite honestly, WHY someone chooses to adopt is a personal decision. Why not also dismantle adoption because of infertility issues? Or because of wanting to start a family?
People come to the choice to adopt based solely on their own reasons. Although I might not agree with other people's reasons to adopt, who am I to say it was the wrong reason? Everyone has their own paths to follow. To support "dismantling" a reason, is, IMO arrogant and self righteous. The fact is, a child is finding a family. And PAPs are making a family of their own, regardless of personal reasons as to WHY, or how they came to that decision. I too, find difficulty with understanding the Christian adoption movement. But, why try to prove it wrong....Isn't the end result what it's all about anyway (making a family, and giving a family to an otherwise parentless child...for all practical purposes)? Isn't that what it was about for your own family?

Sharon said...

Professor Smolin is building quite a career for himself as an international adoption critic/expert, but just as he is not the only authority on these matters, his is also not the definitive interpretation of the Bible. Dismantling is usually in the eye of the beholder.

I'm not an evangelical, but I do follow some of what is going on in this community as it relates to adoption. As with any other community, there's a wide range of perspectives there on the adoption issue, and I do see reflection, discussion and questioning happening within these ranks concerning adoption and doing what is right for kids and their communities in the developing world. If Prof Smolin's article adds to the discussion amongst those in the orphan care movement, great, but I suspect it won't, given that the overall thrust of his work is aimed at ending international adoption; that message likely won't connect with those who persist in believing that it is their duty as Christians to serve those in need, and see need in the developing world.

I agree with Anonymous' statement that "dismantling" anyone's reasons for adopting is arrogant. For those who oppose adoption on principle, no reason is good enough.

Kate said...

Anonymous & Sharon - But people's motivations to adopt *do* matter. There may not be a clear line between "right" and "wrong" reasons to adopt, but if PAPs motives may lead them to turn a blind eye to corruption or fail to meet their adoptive child's emotional needs, it's not arrogant to critique that. And that applies whether one's motive to adopt is due to infertility, faith, or any other reason.

malinda said...

Professor Smolin's argument turns out to be prophetic -- he says that anyone that offers any critique of adoption is called anti-adoption. And here we have commentors saying that Smolin wants to end all international adoption. You either haven't read what he wrote, or you're illustrating his point!

I've read just about everything he's written on adoption since 2004, and have never seen from him a call to end all international adoption! Saying there are flaws in adoption is not the same as calling for an end to adoption. It's happened to me here, anytime I've offered a critique, and now it's same song, second verse, for Smolin.

Feel free to address his arguments, refute his points, disagree with him, but it's a little lazy to simply say he's anti-adoption.

Sharon said...

Malinda, I've read his work too, and had online conversations with him. You may disagree with my conclusions as to the thrust of his work, but please don't call me lazy. Why is it that anyone who wants to discuss the child welfare benefits of adoption alongside the ethical issues and challenges is said to be turning a blind eye to corruption? I write a blog devoted to discussing these issues in a balanced way, within the larger context of international child welfare. I fear that too often when we talk about adoption, that larger child welfare context is ignored. Corruption is real, and so is the global orphan crisis, but corruption and knee-jerk criticism of those who seek to respond to the crisis gets the most ink.

malinda said...

Sharon, I did not call you lazy -- I called the approach of labeling people anti-adoption as being lazy.

Of course, one's perspective matters. From your perspective, the critique of adoption gets the most ink. From my perspective, the child welfare position gets all the ink.

I always appreaciate your balanced, reasoned approach to commenting here, but you fell below your usual standards here!

Where is Smolin's biblical critique wrong? Your comment merely says he's wrong because he wants all international adoption to end. I've never seen that in his writings, in fact he says exactly the opposite in his writings that I have read. Can you cite me to his writings that say that all international adoption should end?

Anonymous said...

Kate said;
"...but if PAPs motives may lead them to turn a blind eye to corruption or fail to meet their adoptive child's emotional needs, it's not arrogant to critique that."

In that same light, one can say that adopting due to infertility is also harmful to the A-child's emotional stability...because adoption was not the first choice but the alternative to being able to have their "own child".
Or one can argue that adopting as a single parent is a selfish choice because the child will not be able to experience both a mother and a father, something that some experts say is important for emotional well being.
Or adopting when older than XX age is emotionally difficult for the adopted child, because it's likely that the child will not be able to experience the PAPs when (s)he becomes a middle aged adult.
So, really, in this state of argument, the ONLY right choice to adopt would be consisting of a healthy couple, who can have bio children but choose to adopt instead.
That's a fairly narrow group of people. Most likely, 95% of us PAPs would not be prime candidates to adopt. Wouldn't that be sad? I sure am glad no one "dismantled" the 'second time around' older adoptive parent movement.

malinda said...

Anonymous 1 & 2: There's a difference between focusing on individual reasons for adoption, and focusing on an adoption movement. Smolin's article deals with the second, not the first.

The issue is not whether some reasons to adopt are better than other reasons to adopt -- it's that there is a movement of Christians who offer a new theological basis for adoption. Critique of the basis for this movement is not attacking any particular person's reason for adoption, so doesn't seem to suffer from that "arrogance" issue. Instead, the article is an academic critique of the stated basis for an adoption movement.

Sharon said...

Sorry if I sounded a bit testy, Malinda! And I'm not saying Smolin's Biblical critique is "wrong;" what I was implying, perhaps not too clearly, is that Biblical scholars have been debating the interpretation of the scriptures for eons, so to assume one particular interpretation from a single non-theologian (or anyone else) offers a definitive understanding on a particular subject is a mistake. Also, I'm not sure how deeply those in the evangelical movement will engage with his argument/interpretation given his known point of view on adoption. Perhaps to say he is anti-adoption is hand-handed, but I see him as an anti-corruption advocate vs. a child advocate. Of course, kids and everybody else benefits when corruption in adoption is stamped out, but it's a special focus, not a holistic child welfare approach.

Anonymous said...

I applaud Smolin's candor and analysis of this topic which is a hornet's nest. It takes a bit of bravery to tackle this topic but it's a long time coming. There is strong need for more examination of this connection and the behind the effects on children of viewing adoption from the evangelical biblical perspective.

It's high time to publicize that adoption for the purpose of spreading Christianity is not in the best interest of adoptees. In addition to being racist, stripping a child completely of ones indigenous religion and culture prevents children from healthy formation of their identities.

Kudos Mr. Smolin.

Anonymous said...

Sharon - what is your blog? is it objective and not 100% anti adoption? if so, i'd love to read it. i'm have my eyes wide open about corruption but also support IA 100% because I feel corruption is NOT the norm. i'm tired of reading the same old crap, writers thinking if they keep writing it over and over it will become true. i'm convinced the anti adoption folks want to see corruption to prove their point. are you part of pear? if so, i'm probably not going to read the blog - sorry!

Sharon said...

Hi Anonymous, If you click on my name here in the comments, it will take you to my blog, Whatever Things Are True: the Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the World of International Adoption. I don't post as often as Malinda -- she does such a fantastic job keeping up with the news -- but I analyze news and public policy as much as I can, and post both "good" and "bad" adoption news. I'm not a member of PEAR or any other adoption-related organization. I hope you'll stop by.

Anonymous said...

But the cause itself is what stimulates, otherwise 'non PAPs', to consider adoption, in some cases. I've seen many blogs where the PAPs are interested BECAUSE of their beliefs and their church's interpretation of what is best. Again, I want to say that I do cringe at times when I see the reasons some people choose to adopt...but it seems to me that, at least in some of these cases, the good would outweigh the bad. And that is why I may not agree with the cause, but I don't see it as something that needs to be dismantled. And there are a lot of people who adopt again and again, and bring the child into a loving home, BECAUSE of the support and the "calling" they get from their beliefs. I honestly do not see that as a bad thing when you look at the big picture.

Anonymous said...

Moore - one of the strongest proponents in the evangelical adoption movement had to write a piece on not adopting. I believe based on what is written in that piece the sheer number of disruptions in that community is high due to the fervor and zeal in the call to adopt and not really being prepared. Kind of like keeping up with the Jones aka religious style.

Yet even some commentors to that post chose to view the disruptions as Gods way of bringing the child to the right family. NO consideration or common sense needed to be applied as to the detriment a disruption does TO the child - head in the sand mentality.

When people rush into adoption because they suddenly heard the message it becomes a frenzy and is not in the child's best interest.

Dr. Smolin has done a fine dismantling of the topic. One quite frankly that should not have needed to be done if you actually knew your Bible - it is all very clear if you don't just take a passage out of context, and instead read the entire chapter and book it is from to understand the message...

Anonymous said...

sharon - been reading it for a long time! thanks!

Sharon said...

theadoptedones, I fully agree with you that there needs to be better preparation for adoption in the evangelical community, and I've been happy to see voices from within that community urging reflection. I do worry about people jumping in without understanding what emotional needs their adopted child might have, but my concerns go well beyond the Christian community. Last year I had different people coming to me to help find homes for Ethiopian kids whose adoptions were being disrupted. In neither case was it a "Christian" home, but I suspect neither family had any idea what parenting older, traumatized children would entail. In fact, one of the adopters who disrupted was an Ethiopian American woman who participates enthusiastically on various Ethiopian adoption boards, dispensing advice to (white) adoptive parents who have no idea that she disrupted. There are special issues and concerns surrounding adoption and the Christian community, but I don't feel comfortable demonizing that group of people, or making too many sweeping statements about them, when the very same problems are popping up in adoptive families of other backgrounds. I think adoption agencies need to scrutinize EVERYONE more closely. A good social worker should help a prospective adopter understand her own motives better, to hopefully encourage better parenting. And some folks who want to adopt should be turned down.

Anonymous said...


Somehow my reply did not post. I agree with you and wasn't trying to generalize that is is only the religious community - only talking about it because the topic is relevant to the religious community.

Any ill-prepared adoptive parent is bad. The agencies must screen better, educate better, prepare better, and say no you aren't right for this adoption better.

Disruptions are not acceptable in this day and age - everyone (aka the professionals) have had several generations to get adoption right the first time. Of course there will be the odd mistake but somehow it sounds like it isn't an anomoly but common.

malinda said...

theadoptedones, I don' know why your reply didn't post -- all comments are emailed to me, and yours got emailed to me. That usually means that somehow a comment got marked as spam by blogger, and I can go to the spam folder and recover it -- but under the new redesigned blogger format, I can't find the spam folder!

So sorry! I'm glad you commented again. . . .

Jessica said...

I'm not a biblical scholar, but David Smolin's observations about the difference between "adoption" in the Old Testament--i.e. the story of Moses--and adoption today evoke, from me anyway, a reaction of "Yes, of course they're different. That was 2,000+ years ago." Smolin seems to interpret the Bible as literal, while I view it more as metaphor.

I'm not an Evangelical Christian, either, but as I read Smolin's essay, I remembered this 1945 poem by the Reverend Martin Neimoller:

"In Germany they came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up
because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn't speak up
because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came or the trade
unionists, and I didn't speak up
because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up
because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me,
and by that time
no one was left to speak up."

© 1945, Reverend Martin Niemoller.

I agree with Anonymous on Jan. 3 at 11:26 AM who said, "Quite honestly, WHY someone chooses to adopt is a personal decision. Why not also dismantle adoption because of infertility issues? Or because of wanting to start a family."

In my opinion, attacking an entire group of people for any reason--especially religious beliefs--is a slippery slope.

What if instead of "demonizing" groups of people or making "sweeping statements about them" (as Sharon said on Jan. 4), we in the adoption community focused our collective efforts on advocating for family preservation,family planning, education for women and children, and transparency in all adoptions. Imagine what we could accomplish by working together.

A few days ago, Malinda posted about a young woman named Kahleah Guibault, adopted from Guatemala as an infant, who now leads service trips back to her birth country, working specifically with children in orphanages. Kahleah may well represent the future generation of adoption, one focused on action instead of criticism. I sincerely hope so.

Jessica O'Dwyer

Claudia said...

Thanks so much for posting this link, Malinda - as an evangelical Christian, I found his biblical analysis really refreshing.

LilySea said...

Thanks for the link, Malinda. I put a pdf of this article in my ipad to read at leisure (when I get some). I need to do some work on this issue.

Susan said...

Adoption is unbiblical. It is cruel to separate a mother and child . God hates cruelty. Both mother and child should be assisted. Adoption takes the child and don't give a toss for the birth mother.