‘christian’ Americanity & The New Gospel of Adoption

On the April 28, 2013 broadcast of MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry Show, Harris-Perry (MHP) sat down with a few guests to discuss the movement for transnational adoption among a significant number of evangelical Christian families. During the segment a young woman from Ethiopia, Tarikuwa Lemma, shared her story of being illegally adopted by a family in the United States. Lemma was told that she and her two younger sisters were coming to America for an educational exchange program, but upon arrival they found out they had been adopted.

I came across the story by way of Facebook where many of my FB friends were sharing the video accompanied by expressions of outrage and frustration. The general theme of much of the commentary was “WTH, white people?” I shared many of the sentiments of the folks in my newsfeed, and the frustration has stayed with me to this day. Not only am I frustrated by the idea that (black/brown) children are illegally extracted from their countries and communities with an increasing amount of regularity, but also by certain elements of the 4/28 conversation itself; namely, the lengths to which one commentator went to – perhaps unintentionally – justify the desires of the good [(Christian) (white)][i]folks who participate in transnational adoption.

As MHP points out early in the segment, each of the individuals and families have their own stories undergirding their desire to transnationally adopt children. So, I understand that critiques of each individual/family must have a certain level of nuance. While their stories are unique, there also seems to be a not so unique problematic trend across many transnational adoptions; that is, the troublesomely convoluted cocktail of missionary “Christian” values, white supremacy, and American exceptionalism/imperialism that undergirds the phenomenon.

After Lemma shared her story, MHP attempts to begin the process of interrogating this convoluted cocktail by posing the following question to Karen Moline, a board member of Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform.

“So, Karen,” MHP says, “then [how does] a parent or someone who does feel moved, maybe even has a sense of purpose – as is part of the language around the evangelical part of the movement – find an ethical way to be engaged in adoption?”

At first, Moline’s response seems promising. She quickly interjects that one has to check their motives for adopting internationally. However, she just as quickly derails the conversation away from interrogating individual motives into an all out critique of the capitalist “powers and principalities” behind the transnational adoption phenomenon. She goes all the way in on the fact that we live in a “corrupt country that has corrupt practices in every aspect of its business,” including the adoption business.

I actually agree with Moline’s overarching argument. The problem is, however, Moline’s stark critique of the capitalist economy that has infiltrated the transnational adoption process maintains its poignancy by using “the system” as a scapegoat. Her critique scapegoats the system and works very hard to justify the actions of the “honest, ethical, and well-meaning” (Christian) people whose desires help to fuel the capitalist logic that has infiltrated the transnational adoption process to begin with.

The short of it is, if there weren’t churches championing the “Gospel of Adoption”message, and other (non-religious) organizations working hard to demonize all things “non-Western” while simultaneously working hard to suggest that western (U.S.A.) democracy can provide salvation for the world, there may not be as much of a demand for little black and brown babies from other countries in America.

Now, for the long of it…

Early in the 4/28 broadcast, MHP sat down with author, Kathryn Joyce, to discuss the history of transnational adoption and her book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption. Joyce identifies the fact that while transnational adoption is not a problem specific to evangelicals, it is a problem that they do a great deal to perpetuate.[ii]

Joyce further identifies that in recent years this new “Gospel of Adoption” has emerged wherein evangelical Christians purport that by adopting orphans they are mirroring the adoption they participate in through Jesus Christ. While this is quite the moving analogy, every analogy that we use to parallel our action to God’s (or vice versa) will inevitably fall apart at some point. And this one fell apart no sooner than it came out of some evangelical preacher’s mouth.

How does it fall apart, you ask? Well, for me, at the point that those “honest, ethical, and well-meaning” (more often than not, white) Christian folks are paralleled to Jesus Christ and the (more often than not, black/brown) children are consequently paralleled to those in need of salvation and rescuing – adoption.

The problem with this analogy is that there is a long history of well intentioned (?) Western Christians using it – or at the very least something similar to it – in order to convert, colonize, and criminalize non-Western, non-white, assumedly non-religious folks in and/or from other countries. This same notion perpetuated many crusades to foreign countries and began the processes of “civilizing,” democratizing, and/or enslaving these non-Western people.

I think revisiting Lemma’s narrative is helpful here in seeing some similarities. Lemma recounts that when she found out what was happening she grieved and was angry. In spite of this, the American family told her they were her “Forever Family,” gave she and her sisters new names, and prohibited them from speaking in their native languages. Lemma goes on to explain that she was grieved and angered because she already had a family in Ethiopia. She already had an Ethiopian given name. She simply was not in need of her Forever Family’s adoption salvation.

Lemma’s story highlights the problems that emerge when people utilize (Christian) theological language to substantiate things that at their core have nothing to do with Christianity. Or said differently – just because somebody is talking about Jesus and saying his name a bunch of times, doesn’t mean they’re saying something in line with what Jesus actually said.

One can see clear parallels to certain articulations of the work of Christ within the story as Lemma retells it. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard Christian identified folks talk about God adopting them into the Christian family, “changing their name,” and giving them a new walk & a new talk. Assumedly, just like Jesus, the American family gives Lemma and her sisters a new family, give them new names, and mandate a new way of speaking.

But the problem is the adoption-salvation is not an adoption-salvation by Christ into the Judeo-Christian family, but an inauguration into a certain type of middle-class, white, American, democratic, English-speaking, assumedly Christian kind of life/family – christian Americanity, if you will.[iii] The “Gospel of Adoption” is not purely undergirded by Christian faith, but by Christian theological language and, as MHP points out during the segment, a missionary notion of things being better in the United States.

The assumption is that life in non-Western, historically non-democratic societies is worse than life in the “civilized” United States of America. Regardless of the country – Vietnam, Guatemala, Ethiopia, or Korea – these people seem to think that uprooting children from their native countries can only bring the children “good.” Misinformation… FALSE information is often at the core of these assumptions.  This false information works hard to conceal the fact that many times folks we consider orphans actually have families and communities supporting them; albeit, these communities and families do not always fit the mold of what some define as family/community in the U.S.

Maybe putting the shoe on the other foot will help clarify my frustration a bit more. Let’s suppose people in Ethiopia decided that white babies from the United States would be better off in their country. Suppose they had the advantage of media, imperial domination/conquest, and centuries of misinformation and propaganda on their side – all the tools necessary to cast a negative light on life in the United States. Finally, suppose they utilized these things to engage in the systematic extraction (adoption?) of these children from their native country. Wouldn’t all hell break loose?

Well, the shoe isn’t on the other foot, and Tarikuwa Lemma’s story as well as Kathryn Joyce’s recent book, highlights the atrocities associated with this new gospel of adoption. All hell should be breaking loose.

While corrupt capitalist business practices definitely do much to perpetuate the problem, as Karen Moline points out, we cannot use them as a scapegoat. We must be equally critical of the good [(Christian) (white)] folks who want to adopt internationally, and not be so quick to redeem their desires/actions. Although the majority of Moline’s response focused on calling out the system, her first few words ring equally true – ‘What you have to do first is examine your motives of going internationally…”

Examine your motives. Examine your enthusiasm. Examine your savior complex. Examine your faith. Or maybe I should say, the Christian theological language you’re using to make your desire sound like faith.

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