The Danger of 'Orphan Theology'

THE MAXIM states that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But what happens when well-meaning Christians construct and lead others down that road? In her new book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption (PublicAffairs), investigative journalist Kathryn Joyce explores how some evangelicals have fueled the global adoption frenzy—and how adoption reform advocates are trying to stem the tide of trafficked children (and the rampant spread of misinformation) across borders. Sojourners contributing writer Brittany Shoot recently spoke with Joyce.

Brittany Shoot: Why do you think it’s been primarily evangelicals who have led the surge in international adoption?

Kathryn Joyce: The idea of the “global orphan crisis” needs some unpacking. People who talk about this crisis often cite UNICEF estimates that there are between 150 and 210 million orphaned children in the world. While the figures actually refer to a wide range of orphaned and vulnerable children in need of services, often people only hear the word “orphan” and presume these children are parentless kids in need of new homes. In fact, most of these children have a surviving biological parent or other extended family who may need some support.

Additionally, adoption has become a powerful metaphor in many evangelical churches studying and preaching what has become known as adoption or orphan theology. Many leaders within the movement teach that earthly adoption is a perfect mirror of Christian adoption by God, and it’s a way that Christians can put their faith into action in a very personal manner. Evangelicals have been encouraged to adopt by this theology as well as by other developments in their churches or denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2009 resolution that asked its members to prayerfully consider whether God was calling them to adopt.

Some families entered this process without being aware of all of the potential problems that international adoption can bring: the potential for corruption when huge adoption fees trickle down to impoverished countries, the stories of children being coerced from poor but intact families, the trauma that many adoptees may be suffering that can prevent them from bonding quickly, and parents’ expectations that children will immediately be happy or grateful for having been adopted.

Why is this debate so important, even as it shines a negative light on the actions of likely well-intentioned Christians?
Adoption success stories need to be told, but they also already receive a lion’s share of attention. At a local level, adoption is often covered as though it’s an unqualified miracle for the family and child: that the child has been “saved” from Haiti or another developing country. While adoption can be a very beautiful thing, it can also be the result of coercion of willing but vulnerable or poor birth parents, abroad or in the U.S., or of a culture in which the infrastructure for temporary child care is limited to orphanages connected to international adoption. Incredibly, in a number of countries, parents who relinquish children for adoption sometimes don’t understand that they’re giving up their children forever, because of different cultural understandings and traditions of adoption. These are serious and systematic issues we need to address.

I focused on Christian adopters because the Christian adoption movement has become very important in the adoption sphere today. Many of the largest adoption agencies identify as evangelical, and in some adoption “sending countries,” the religious orientation of evangelical adoptive families can be very noticeable. Child welfare workers in Uganda say that some U.S. Christians show up in that country wearing t-shirts reading slogans like “Addicted to Orphans.”

It’s also worth noting that I’ve spoken to numerous Christian adoption reform advocates who feel that the Christian adoption movement can be a reckless influence in adoption, or who are doing work in various countries trying to prevent children with parents from being unnecessarily adopted or institutionalized. I don’t think that critiquing the problems in the evangelical adoption movement is randomly picking on what Christians are doing wrong. It’s having a huge effect on how adoption is conducted overseas and discussed on a national level here in the U.S. It has to be covered. 

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"The Danger of 'Orphan Theology'"
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