My favorite group of practitioners, activists, and life-long learners gathered in Austin, Texas for my one-and-only can’t miss conference of the year. This year, we came together to discuss the complex issues of “human care”–issues of orphan care, gospel-centered mission work, international relief, and gender issues, among other things. This conference is one of a different stripe, a deconstructionist’s dream, a conference where it’s okay to leave with burning questions, no immediate solutions, and the realization that only by the grace of God do we tread into the difficult work of the gospel.
It was my privilege to attend this gathering as both a student and presenter, my particular presentation topic involving issues of international adoption ethics.* And so, after delving into various ethical issues currently facing the international orphan care community–issues including baby-brokering, soft trafficking, fraud, and manipulation–a group of us made our way to the basement of the Methodist church to engage in a breakout discussion of adoption ethics.
A Christian relief worker from Haiti fired up the discussion, shared of the difficulties in ensuring that outgoing Haitian orphans had proper paperwork. The integrity of the good orphan care agencies had been called into question because of the scoundrels looking to turn a buck on orphans, she said. Others built on her stories, shared of adoption agencies that refused to share birth-parent information with the adoptive parents, and refused to confirm that the children were double orphans or otherwise ethically relinquished.
Questions flew, too. How can the local church help prospective adoptive parents ask the right questions? How do we help them pursue the most ethical international adoption? We were on our way to a productive discussion.
That’s when the levee broke.
A shy hand raised in the corner of the room. “I’ve adopted internationally,” she said, “and I’ve wrestled with whether it was all above board. The paperwork for my children has gone missing, the orphanage has shut down, and my adoption agency has been closed.” She broke, then paused, then regrouped. I prepared myself to console her, to offer a gentle word, and that’s when she dropped the theological nuclear bomb.
“But here’s what I’d like to know from you: who are we to question the ethics of my childrens’ adoption? Who are we to question the sovereignty of God?”
The sovereignty of God–ah, that grand Ace of Spades. In full disclosure, I’ve spent the majority of my Christian life in reformed circles, and if I’m painfully honest, I often still interpret scripture through this lens. Yes, I believe that we are God’s handiwork, that we’ve been created in Christ to do works prepared for us long ago. Yes, I believe that God, in his sovereignty, works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Here’s something I’ve always thought and never said, though–invoking God’s sovereignty to avoid tough questions is a misapplication of the doctrine.
Now, before I continue, allow me to recognize that a good many storytellers have found themselves in hot water when they delved into theology. For purposes of today’s exercise, however, allow me a bit of leeway.
Should we employ sovereignty like a spiritual trump card that ends all play? Should we use it in as an ends-justifying-the-means way to avoid questions of injustice and inequity? Is God’s sovereignty a shield for our best-intentioned mistakes? Should we jettison our faculties for critical thinking, should we stop asking questions because “God ordained outcome X before the foundations of the earth?” Should we use it to avoid considering the consequences of our actions?
If this is the definition of sovereignty, I think we’re using the wrong dictionary.
Allow me to embellish by way of an adoption ethics hypothetical.
A sub-Saharan mother is approached by a local orphanage. “Relinquish your baby,” the orphanage worker says, “and your daughter will go to America, will be afforded a proper education.” Implications are made. The child will return, the mother is told, will be able to better assist in the family economy. The mother relinquishes the child in hopes that a better life for the daughter will one day mean a better life for the extended family. The child is adopted and flown across the world. Two years pass, then three. A decade goes by and the mother has neither seen, nor received any word regarding the whereabouts or condition of her baby girl. She waits, wonders what would happen that her daughter would not come home.
Amidst this hypothetical (but occasionally all too real) backdrop, some of you are now asking various important questions. If the mother did not understand the ramifications of relinquishing her daughter, was the relinquishment ethical? If the relinquishment was not ethical, is the adoption just? If the adoption was not just, and if the adoptive parents did not know, are they somehow complicit in the working of injustice? And if the church avoided asking the right and difficult questions under the rubric of God’s sovereignty, has the church engaged in a myopic mockery of the interplay between a sovereign God and the sinful nature of man?
This issue is not only limited to the context of international adoption, and let me make some things clear. I know a whole host of good parents who have engaged in the practice of international adoption. Some of them have asked hard questions to ensure that their adoptions are as ethical as can be. Others have wrestled with the questions after-the-fact, have made no excuses or theological rationalizations but have rested in God’s grace. That being said, and in light of the recent attacks on the evangelical orphan movement, I’ve been noticing an uptick in the sovereignty argument—God sovereignly ordained that I adopt my child from insert-the-name-of-foreign-country, and so I need not ask any other questions; I trust in God regardless of the supposed inequities to my fellow man. (In full disclosure, I added that last statement.)
Though I do not presume to speak for God, though I cannot claim insight into the nuanced interaction between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, allow me one observation: God’s sovereignty is no excuse for the blind-injustices of man, however well-intentioned they may be. He is ever just. He is ever equitable. He will not be mocked by our theologically tidied-up versions of unjust stories.
*Issues of adoption ethics are complicated, nuanced, and there are no easy answers. Others have unpacked the issues well, including Kristen Howerton, Jen Hatmaker, and J.R. Goudeau. These, and others within the Christian context, have shed light on the potential corruptions and abuses within the international adoption system. To retread that ground here would be unfruitful. If you’re interested in learning more about this issue, please visit the above links.