In the first piece I ever wrote for Sojourners, I reflected on my name and how it functions not only as an identifier, but also a reminder of who I am and the two worlds I inhabit. My Islamic, Desi name, “Amar,” coupled with “Peterman,” a white, Germanic name, often gives people pause. It does not roll off the tongue or meet an anticipated conclusion.
This unlikely combination of names was forged through adoption. Before I was a year old, I was ushered across the world from a cradle in Northern India to a new home in Green Bay, Wis. My body and soul were nourished and cared for by my parents who loved me and claimed me as their own kin long before we ever met face to face. (It is important to acknowledge here that not all experiences of adoption and foster care reflect this).
I am not a second-tier child to them, and they are not substitutionary parents to me. I am proud of both my names. I am not one without the other.
Given this, it was both infuriating and terrifying to see a now-viral clip of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R.-Ga.) maliciously belittling and calling into question the motherhood of Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Weingarten has adopted the children of her partner, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum.
Greene’s attack was deeply personal because her words reminded me of words that my own parents heard every time someone questioned how they, a white couple, could be “real parents” to a brown child.
Weingarten had come to the Capitol with her family to participate in a House subcommittee meeting focused on the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the meeting, Greene shifted her focus away from scrutinizing Weingarten’s policy recommendations and began questioning the legitimacy of her motherhood. The viral clip begins with Greene’s accusatory question: “Are you a mother?” Weingarten's reply, “I am, by marriage,” is met with a patronizing response from Greene. As the dialogue unfolds, Greene implies that because Weingarten’s children are not biologically hers, she is not a real mother. She even goes as far as asking Weingarten to admit that she is not a monther and instead, “just a political activist.”
Greene’s beliefs about adoption hold vast social, political, and theological implications. Calling into question the legitimate familial bond that can occur through adoption further delegitimize an already-inadequate, racialized, and ultimately broken child welfare system.
Rather than questioning the validity of adopted families, our focus should rest on correcting the failures of this system that not only neglects the basic needs of orphaned and displaced children, but also continues to discriminate against those who are marginalized due to their gender and their race. We must work to reform and reconstruct these current systems so they may adequately provide necessary funding and resources for compassionate foster parents, social workers, and nonprofit agencies seeking to help these children and families.
It is not only my experience as an adoptee and justice advocate that drives me to push for these improvements; my Christian faith encourages me to understand adoption in a unique way.
For the Christian, our divine adoption into the family of God is the precondition for our salvation. In the opening words of Ephesians, Paul reminds his audience that they have been blessed “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” just as God chose them “in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (1:3-4). Paul continues: “He destined us for adoption (huiothesia) as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (v. 5-8). Without biological necessity, God’s divine adoption of us makes our position as children of God and joint heirs with Christ legitimate (Romans 8:17).
Paul makes a similar claim in his letter to the Galatians when he explains that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (4:4-5) In other words, it is our adoption in Christ that makes redemption possible. If our adoption is illegitimate, so is our salvation.
I draw these parallels between earthly adoption and God’s divine action with caution. This is because we must also recognize another messianic narrative at play in the U.S: the white savior narrative.
Indeed, through much of American history, the so-called “orphan crisis” in third-world countries has been exoticized and extorted for corporate financial gain while, at the same time, the people and places these orphans come from are labeled as uncivilized and heathen. In these cases, adoption is often tied to christianized American exceptionalism, wherein adoption becomes a means of “saving” children from their biological mother or country of origin by bringing them to America and placing them in a Christian home. Consequently, the native cultures, practices, and languages of adoptees can be erased and deemed pagan. In this way, the scriptural language of adoption is grossly misappropriated and misapplied through subcultural commitments and racialized imaginations of place and religion.
However, when at its best, the practice of adoption offers us a sacramental participation in Christ’s redemptive action in the world. In an constructive essay on social movements and spiritual motherhood, Joshua and Chelsea Bombino articulate another sacramental practice: wombing. Identifying the wombing work of God, the authors draw from the gestational process of biological mothers to speak to a spiritual reality found in the Bible. In a podcast episode on the same topic, the Bombinos also draw heavily from the image of God as our mother who wombs us within Godself. This is not a biological wombing (rekhem), but it is a compassionate one (rakhum). In the divine economy of God, biological parenthood is just as legitimate as being an adopted parent.
Adoption allows us to bring near to us those who hold in themselves the kingdom of God (Luke 18:16). By invoking the language of “sacramental” here, I am naming the ongoing dialectic between the ordinary and the theological. As a sacramental practice, earthly adoption does not hold the same consequences or eternal import as our salvific adoption in Christ. However, these two realities can speak into one another. This is what a life marked by the sacramental looks like: finding spaces where the ordinary, mundane things of life are instilled with a greater sacred significance of liberation and love; and, in return, point us to divine realities that we are invited to participate in.
In his discourse on adoption in Galatians, Paul explains the implications of our being adopted children of God. “Because you are children,” Paul writes, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir through God” (4:6-7; c.f. John 1:12, Romans 8:12-17). Our position as children of God is not a feigned hand reaching out to us, it is an invitation into that intimate space where we might enter in and be formed by the compassionate, mothering womb of God.
The theological and practical implication here is that adoption is not a secondary status of parenthood or childhood. Families that include adopted children are not of a lesser tier. God’s eternal adoptive work makes legitimate our adoptive work, even while the consequences of this adoption operate on different scales. In other words, just as our adoption in Christ makes us children of God, so too does familial adoption make Randi Weingarten a mother and my own mom a mother.
Because of this, it is the Christian’s task to live into the spiritual reality of our liberation through God’s prior initiative of love — adopting us as God’s own. This looks like taking active steps to reform child services, foster care, and adoption processes that currently discriminate against the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised. It also looks like participating in this spiritual parenthood wherein we womb those around us, forming and loving those God has placed under our care through compassion.