Thursday, May 03, 2012

Saddleback Orphan Summit: Heritage, Race, Identity, and the Costs of Adoption Naivety in a Young Movement

While the Saddleback Orphan Summit formally represents the 8th Summit of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, the evangelical adoption and orphan movement care movement has really only come into prominence in the last four years or so.    One of the problematic aspects of this young movement is the way it rushes forward in relative ignorance of many of the hard-won truths about adoption.  

Among these hard-won truths is the significance to adoptees of their origins:  everything from their original family, to the nation, culture, race, and group from which they come.  We know that while many adoptees may express little interest in these subjects at some stages of their life, at other stages they become, probably for most adoptees, subjects of great interest.     Related to this truth is that certain issues, such as loss, grief, anger, and identity, come with the territory of adoption, and are likely to emerge at various points in time in the life of adoptees. 

Incredibly, one of the major leaders of the movement and one of the major speakers at the Saddleback Orphan Summit, Dr. Russell Moore, in his influential book, Adopted for Life, was completely dismissive of the significance of origins for his own adopted children.  The passage has become either famous or infamous, depending on your point of view: 

               “As Maria and I went through the adoption process, we were encouraged by everyone from social workers to family friends to ‘teach the children about their cultural heritage.’  We have done so."
               " Now, what most people probably meant by this counsel is for us to teach our boys Russian folk tales and Russian songs, observing Russian holidays, and so forth.  But as we see it, that’s not their heritage anymore, and we hardly want to signal to them that they are strangers and aliens, even welcome ones, in our home.  We teach them about their heritage, yes, but their heritage as Mississippians…..” [Moore is referring here to people from Mississippi or more broadly the American South.]   (pg. 36)

Moore’s defiance of the received adoption wisdom about the significance of heritage is clear enough here.   Tragically, he is setting up an impossible dilemma for adoptees, who are required to permanently repudiate their original heritage in order to be considered fully a part of their adoptive family.   The heart of the movement as reflected by Moore is not big-hearted enough to truly love Russian, Korean, or Chinese children----those heritages and aspects of their being must be airbrushed out of them, so they can be washed clean in the waters of the Mississippi---baptized into Americanism----before they can be completely accepted or loved by their adoptive families.    Of course for those whose origins include a racial identity differ from their adoptive parents, it will prove impossible to remove the bodily reminders of their heritage, no matter how hard they and their adoptive families try to ignore it.    For how can an Asian or black body become that of a European-descent white person?  (Tragically, some may attempt the impossible, as illustrated by Deann Borshay Liem’s famous adoptee film, First Person Plural, in which she, as a Korean adoptee, underwent cosmetic surgery on her ears to look more like her white adoptive sister.)    Would Moore have his followers say that a Chinese child’s heritage is not Chinese, but Mississippian---and what would that even look like when the child goes into the broader world and inevitably continues to look Asian to the wider world?    

This kind of error comes from anointing as an expert on adoption an adoptive parent of still young children, who is arrogant enough to ignore the received wisdom when the mood suits him.  It is also characteristic of a movement whose leaders are often adoptive parents---and especially fathers---of still young adopted children.   Such parents have not yet lived enough of the adoption life-cycle to understand what characteristically happens as adoptees become teenagers and adults.   And with a mindset that is often dismissive of any wisdom from outside of the church and prior to their movement, they may be unwilling to make up for their gaps in lived experience through reading and listening to others.   In short, the Christian adoption movement too often reflects a kind of willful ignorance of what has come before them in the wider history and world of adoption.  

The theological justification Moore provides for his dismissive approach to the original heritage of adoptees is incoherent.  The passages are too long to quote, but in short, Moore goes from waxing poetical about his own heritage as a Southerner, and how this Southern heritage is now the heritage of his adopted children, to talking about how the Christian’s heritage is found in Christ and not in their natural family heritage.   Somehow, Moore never seems to realize that if this principle is indeed applicable and accurately stated, then it would demand that he be as equally dismissive of his own Southern heritage as he expects his adopted children to be of their Russian heritage. 

Beyond the incoherence are numerous theological problems.    In brief:  the Bible certainly does NOT teach a doctrine of adoption whereby orphan children, or indeed ANY of us, are required to be dismissive of our original family, nationality, culture, or race.   Quite the opposite----in the very rare cases where something like an actual adoption of a child occurs in the Bible, the adoptee’s original family identity and heritage are preserved, and the loyalty of the adoptee to that original identity is positive and decisive to the story.  (Think Moses and Esther.)    In addition, to the degree that the New Testament even mentions adoption---the five Pauline references----the only plausible reference is to the Roman practice of adopting young adult males---and in that practice the original family name of the adopted person was usually incorporated into their new adoptive name, and the adoptee was expected to maintain a relationship with their original family.  Of course these young men anyway usually weren’t orphans---adoption was a social promotion and an honor for a strong, talented, and promising young man, not the provision of a family to a helpless orphan child.   Of course one of the difficulties the Christian adoption movement has is that the practice of adopting unrelated orphan children is not something done by the people of God at all in the Bible, since there is no such law of adoption in the Old Testament, and the New Testament never mentions anyone in the New Testament Church ever adopting an unrelated orphan child.   For a fuller explanation, see my paper:

For all Christians, there is a call to choose God over our family ties, where there is a conflict between the two.    But that is no excuse for uniquely de-valuing the original family ties of adoptees, and there is absolutely no Biblical indication that such is expected or required. 

In private conversation, participants and leaders of the movement often will disagree with Moore’s assessment of adoptee heritage.    I would guess that Moore himself most likely will come to a different assessment as his children grow up, if he has not already done so, for I assume that he and his wife truly love their adoptive children, and will reevaluate their stances as they learn from the changing needs of their children.   But a lot of damage has already been done, as reports indicate that some adoptive parents influenced by the movement are largely ignoring issues of racial identity and cultural heritage.   Since it takes a lot of effort and thought for typical white adoptive parents to successfully navigate the issues involved in transracial adoption, and since addressing the issue adequately may require adoptive parents to change things in their own lives, providing excuses for not doing so is, practically speaking, very harmful. 

On May 3rd, in the first morning session of the Summit, when adoptee Ryan Bomberger was interviewed, the questions and answers reflected the truth that race and origins normally do matter to adoptees.   Just having an adult adoptee present and speaking improved the approach considerably over that found in Moore’s book.  Unfortunately, there still was a certain defensiveness in how the subject was addressed, as the conversation was primarily about whether or not to ever permit transracial adoption, with no discussion of how to do transracial adoption.   Perhaps that will be addressed in the relevant breakout sessions.    Ryan Bomberger made clear that he had been in some very difficult places emotionally at certain times of his life, but the relationship of those difficulties to issues of race, origins, and adoption was left unclear.   Thus, the only named adult adoptee speaker at the event seemed to be there to affirm transracial adoption, and to give an anti-abortion message, rather than to explain how to navigate these adoptee and parenting issues.    The discussion is ending where it should be beginning, which is largely a consequence of failing to include critical adoptee voices who, outside the confines of the movement, have for many years been usefully addressing these issues.  

I am hopeful that the movement is in the process of circling back to the hard-won truths of the wider adoption world regarding the centrality of issues of origins, search, loss, and race, and of how important it is to parent transracial adoptees with an eye toward the inescapability---and goodness--- of the racial identity and cultural and family heritage provided by their original family.  

In the meantime, the movement too often celebrates the racial diversity being produced in mostly white churches by transracial adoption, as though that represented a positive achievement for the church.   To the contrary: a strategy of achieving racial diversity in churches through adoption is an admission that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous observation that  Sunday morning is the “most segregated hour in Christian America,” remains true.  It is still true that most adults choose to attend churches characterized by the overwhelming predominance of people of their own race:  white churches, black churches, Korean churches, etc.  To the degree that representing racial diversity within the local congregation is a goal, this represents a significant failure; to the degree that one believes there are good reasons for having congregations such as “Korean churches,” this should be acknowledged, and its cost to the ideal of a multi-racial local church accepted.      In neither instance, however, is there any reason to celebrate racial diversity in white churches produced by transracial adoption, for this unfairly puts the costs of achieving diversity upon vulnerable children, while failing to provide the true benefits of diversity, in which people of different races are required to treat one another as equals.   A church in which most or almost all of the non-whites are children is hardly a place where those lessons can be learned:  at least by the adults!   It is well known in the wider adoption community that black, Asian, and Latino transracial adoptees adopted into white families and growing up in churches, neighborhoods, and schools that are overwhelmingly white have their already-difficult struggles with identity, loss, and discrimination exacerbated by the stress of being the diversity in the environments in which they grow up.  It is hardly a brave thing for white adoptive parents to bring their transracial adoptees into white churches.  As at least one transracial adoptee, JaeRan Kim, has challenged, why instead don’t white adoptive parents of transracially-adopted children attend churches where the race of the child predominates?   (If you adopt an Ethiopian or African-American child, attend a black church; if you adopt a Korean child, attend a Korean church.)   Even if such is not always the best or most practical course, it illustrates the point well---if the parents would find this difficult, why do we expect the black or Asian child brought into a white church to find it easy?    Why are we so willing to achieve diversity by putting transracial adoptees into difficult situations?   Again, the costs of adoption naivety are borne by the adoptees upon whom this movement experiments, in willful ignorance of the hard-won truths of adoption.

One can expect the Christian adoption and orphan care movement to mature over time; for the sake of those whom it is impacting, one can pray it happens sooner rather than later.   Such wished-for maturity will happen sooner if the movement is less defensive and more willing to learn from those, Christian and non-Christian, who have gone before in living and engaging the inevitable and recurrent issues intrinsic to adoption.


See JaeRan Kim, Some Children See Him:  A Transracial Adoptee's View of Color-blind Christianity (forthcoming Journal of Christian Legal Thought 2012).   This issue of the Journal of Christian Legal Thought will be available in about a month on the Christian Legal Society web site, and will be announced also on this blog.  

1 comment:

  1. "One can expect the Christian adoption and orphan care movement to mature over time; for the sake of those whom it is impacting, one can pray it happens sooner rather than later."

    You are more optimistic than me, David. All I see is ideology, and that never matures.

    What Russell Moore seems to misunderstand is that his job as an adoptive parent is to demonstrate his respect for his children's Russian heritage by joining them as they learn. They'll learn their American southern heritage by living it every day. What they need from their adoptive parents is a signal that what they brought with them from Russia is equally important and precious.