Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Responding to Dr. Smolin’s “Of Orphans and Adoption” (Part 1)

The following is part 1 of 2 blog entries that deal with Dr. Smolin's article, "Of Orphans and Adoption."

Recently, I had the distinction of being mentioned in Dr. David Smolin’s article “Of Orphans and Adoption.”  My inclusion in the article was due to my book, A Passionfor the Fatherless, being cited several times throughout the article—and usually not in a good way! 

Nevertheless, I found the article instructive and encourage others to read it and think through Smolin’s argument.  The article may be found here.  

The primary purpose of Smolin’s article is “to demonstrate that the scriptural and theological analysis undergirding the evangelical adoption and orphan care movement is patently and seriously erroneous” (1).  His secondary purpose is to demonstrate that these errors have led to serious consequences in terms of the orphan care ministry.

In one of his first footnotes, Smolin refers to four books that serve as representatives of the evangelical orphan care movement: Adopted for Life by Russell Moore; Reclaiming Adoption by Dan Cruver; Orphanology by Tony Merida; and my own A Passion for the Fatherless.  Of those four books, mine is certainly the least well-known, so it was—in a weird way—an honor to be included with men I respect and some I have the privilege of calling friends.

At the conclusion of his article, Dr. Smolin offers an invitation for continued dialogue.  I have already corresponded with Dr. Smolin and told him I appreciate his critique.  In my correspondence with him, I have found him as good as his word.  He is cordial to those with whom he disagrees and enters into discussions with good faith.     

Here are some of my thoughts on Smolin’s article that may be helpful for continuing a dialogue:

First, Smolin rightly realizes that theology has practical consequences.

The impact of theology on our actions is a major concern of my ministry and book.  I appreciated that Smolin’s article is a theological argument.  He is concerned with dangerous currents within the pro-adoption movement and realizes that faulty theology may be to blame.

He contends that “the 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” (1).

While I disagree with aspects of his contention regarding the extent of the scriptural and theological errors and the extent of the exploitative effects of the ministry,  Smolin and I are very close in terms of where the starting point of the discussion should be.  Furthermore, his desire to be faithful to the biblical evidence has certainly caused me to search the Scriptures more carefully in the days since reading his article.

Second, he rightly understands the need to care for the disenfranchised.

This is obviously an area of significant agreement.  Smolin cites my work at the conclusion of the following paragraph:

…God asserts his role as the protector and provider of this vulnerable family unit, and demands that His people, rather than exploiting the vulnerability of this family unit, imitate Him by protecting and providing for the widow and the fatherless (20).

I’m uncertain as to whether or not Smolin is citing me to indicate my agreement with this statement or to suggest that I disagree with it.  I’m also unsure why he cited pages 23-56 of my book.  I think he meant to cite pages 39-55.  So, while I may be wrong, I will assume he understands that I absolutely agree with this statement and the larger point he is making. 

Third, Smolin is right when he warns of the danger of confusing texts on caring for orphans with calls to adoption. 

Smolin argues that one of the fallacies of the evangelical orphan care movement is to see “adoption” injunctions in every text dealing with caring for orphans (e.g., 2).  He is correct to see this tendency.  While I would argue he overstates the discontinuity between adoption and caring for the orphan, his point deserves consideration.

I make a similar point in my book (e.g., 22-23; 195).  There is a reason I tried to make my book deal with orphan care ministry and not just adoption.  I’ve been concerned that churches have focused too much on adoption and not enough on holistic orphan care ministry.  Even though I’ve been vaguely aware of this danger, I certainly haven’t been able to articulate it as well—or as strongly—as Smolin. 

Fourth, he grapples with moral issues that must be addressed by the evangelical orphan care movement. 

Smolin offers a blistering critique of the evangelical orphan care ministry’s intercountry adoption focus. 

The intercountry adoption system routinely is willing to spend $20,000 to $40,000 on an intercountry adoption, while not being willing to spend even a few hundred dollars on the preservation of the original family.  Hence, taking away children from the poor is not considered a corrupt or illegal practice by the modern intercountry adoption movement, but instead is considered standard practice.  Intercountry adoption systems that offer family preservation assistance to avoid relinquishment due to poverty are, in developing nations, the exception rather than the rule.  The movement has yet to learn that taking away the children of the poor and vulnerable is neither a Christian nor a humanitarian act” (30, emphases added).
 Yes, Smolin verges on presenting a false dichotomy between adoption and family preservation and over generalizes, both of which I will address later.  But my stomach churned as I read these words because I fear Smolin is largely right.   This reality must be forcefully addressed by the evangelical community. 

Sometimes when I look at my adopted daughter, I mourn for her birth family.  It saddens me that her father will never get to experience the joy of being the dad of this amazing child.  The fact that she is not with her birth family means a tragedy has occurred.

Next blog will look more closely at areas of disagreement with Dr. Smolin's article.


Adam Byerly said...

Good start. I am grateful to see those in disagreement engaging each others' works with care and respect. Also, so far I am excited to see that you are willing to acknowledge the good in an argument that may be contra your own (generally) rather than simply polarizing from the get go. I look forward to reading your second post. And for now have deferred the lengthier read of his work and am counting on you to represent it faithfully. ;)

jdurham said...

I've just read Smolin's piece. I definitely think he achieves his goal of providing a critique that will stimulate debate and dialogue. There are a number of helpful and valid points in his paper. Smolin is right that there is an abundance of praise for the movement and not a lot of theological critique. I think he "fills that gap".

Perhaps the most striking and important point that he makes is in regards to the analogy between vertical adoption and horizontal adoption. It seems that most evangelicals assume this analogy to be thoroughly Scriptural and a primary reason for embracing adoption as we know it. However, Smolin attacks this assumption with some strength, and this is something that we must certainly come to terms with. I'm sure you will mention this specifically in your next post, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Anonymous said...

Why would one spend 20-40K to adopt internationally? It's a question of child abuse and neglect by a state run institution. Children need families. I did not put these kids in the orphanages. I did not disrupt their families. At the point where these children come to adoptive families, the parental rights are already cut due to drugs, imprisonment or other neglect and abuse. This joker who critiqued your book needs to spend some time in an orphanage with little children smiling at him through rotten teeth. His two hundred dollars won't go to far. Christ said that the poor will always be with us. What is so wrong with an orphan here or there being pulled from their poverty.

Daniel Bennett said...

@Anonymous: In fairness to Smolin, he acknowledges that sometimes adoption is the best option. I'll mention that in the next post.

My concern is that we sometimes present false choices: either adopt OR help kids stay with their families. Both are necessary.

I also think we don't understand the level of abuse that happens in some adoptions. The poor have been and continue to be exploited. Those of us who have adopted and desire to continue to promote adoption need to work to prevent that.

Philip Ausfahl said...

I have not read Smolin's book, so I must rely on the content that I see here. Knowing that my understanding of his position is incomplete, I am still very concerned with his attitude about children being taken from their families and/or being exploited. I absolutely agree that the church should be at the front lines defending the integrity of the family and protecting and supporting families. I am also concerned that churches are willing to support expensive, more anonymous international efforts of ministry at the expense of personal, sacrificial involvement in the lives of people in the community.

However, as the father of a child who was abandoned by her parents on someone's doorstep at birth, in a country where the native families are reticent to adopt at all, more so of girls and especially of children that have been labeled with any sort of disability (which likely my child does not even possess), one has to wonder, who is being exploited? She was not removed from her family but willfully abandoned and neglected by her family. One can speculate about the reasons, but I thank God that she was not one of the little girls that was killed or left to die at birth simply because of her sex. I cannot help but think that God gave certain Americans resources to adopt internationally so that we have an opportunity to participate in making Christians of every tribe and tongue. Money is not an object for God and He can use it as He sees fit.

The adoption agency with which my family worked pours money into local communities across the world. The foster system that the agency started is I believe the first of its kind in that country. The agency pours money into sponsoring children and protecting them. The agency does not advocate separating families, but helping children. Much of the money that adoptive families spend on adoption is used by the agency to reinvest in the country from which the child is adoptive (though I expect this isn't true of all agencies). Much more, the reason that the Hague convention exists is that even the secular international community has recognized there is a need to protect children from exploitation and has made intentional efforts to do so.

Again, my understanding of Smolin's position is incomplete, but the lingering question is: what personal experience does Smolin have with adoption? Has he traveled to orphanages and seen the children rotting because of the failed institutions and utter lack of compassion for orphans in many countries? The system is far from perfect, but God's mandate did not specify that care for orphans stops on country lines either.