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Transracial Adoption, the Gospel, and You

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Years ago I was adopted into a family of a different ethnicity than my own, and it was traumatic. You should see how long it took me to learn Hebrew.

This, and the fact that I’ve adopted two children from the former Soviet Union, led me to read with great interest a current report about so-called “transracial adoption,” the phenomenon of parents who adopt children of a different ethnicity or cultural background.

The report — issued by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute — is against transracial adoption. The New York Times reports that the report does not conclude that transracial adoption produces any kind of psychological or social harm in children, but that “these children often face major challenges as the only person of color in an all-white environment, trying to cope with being different.”

Now, on the one hand, I can see why the social workers would have such concern. As I’ve asserted repeatedly elsewhere, contemporary American rootlessness atrophies the human spirit. It is probably impossible to quantify just how damaging to our happiness this current age of hyper-mobility and commercialized sameness is.

Moreover, the 1970s and 1980s gave us a popular culture view of transracial adoption as novelty at best, condescension at worst. Movie audiences roared with laughter when Steve Martin narrated in the opening minutes of The Jerk: “I was born a poor black child.” Television audiences cooed as the theme song to one seventies sitcom told the story, “A man is born, he’s a man of means; then along come two, and they got nothing but their genes, but they got diff’rent strokes.”

The joke in both instances is how nonsensical the concepts seemed: a white Midwesterner with African-American parents; two streetwise African-American kids growing up in a Park Avenue penthouse. The laugh tracks belied an American wink-and-nod at the idea of a familial racial unity-in-diversity.

Even so, the discouragement of trans-racial adoption is counter-productive and dangerous. Yes, we live, even still, in (in the words of one transracial adoptee quoted in the Times) a “very race-conscious society,” often to the point of hatred. But is the solution to this to discriminate on the basis of race at the adoption process, to allow homes to be knit together, separate but equal, decided on the color of skin?

Old George Wallace once stood in the schoolhouse door, and now his much more progressive-seeming heirs stand in the orphanage door. But both are saying the same thing, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” And both pretend that they’re just being “realistic” about racial discrimination.

Right now, there are untold numbers of children, many of them racial minorities, languishing in the foster care system in the United States. Would the social workers really have us believe that it is better for an African-American child to grow up bounced from home to home in this bureaucratic limbo than to be a child to parents whose skin is paler than his? Do they really believe that a white Russian child would do better to live in an orphanage until she is dismissed at eighteen to a life of suicide or homelessness than to grow up with loving African-American parents?

This approach loves the abstract notion of humanity more than actual humans. It neatly categorizes persons according to their racial lineages rather than according to their need for love, for acceptance, for families. Our love for neighbor means we ought to prioritize the need for families for the fatherless — regardless of how their skin colors or languages line up with one another.

But there’s an even bigger issue here: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I’m not surprised that a group of secular social workers believe racial identity is more important than familial love. The Scripture tells us we always, if left to ourselves, want to categorize ourselves “according to the flesh.” Whether it is the Athenians clinging to their myth of superior origins or Judaizers insisting on circumcision or Peter refusing to eat with pig-devouring Gentiles, we love to see ourselves first and foremost in fleshly categories — because it keeps us from seeing ourselves in Christ.

The gospel, though, drives us away from our identity in the flesh, and toward a new identity, indeed a new family, defined by the Spirit. This new family solidarity is much less visibly obvious; it’s not based on marks in the flesh or skin color or carefully kept genealogies. It’s based on a Spirit that blows invisibly where he wills, showing up in less visible characteristics such as peace, joy, love, righteousness, gentleness, kindness, self-control.

That’s why my heart is broken about the transracial adoption debate. It’s not just because some white kids could miss out on some godly black parents, or vice-versa. It’s because we’re, in part, to blame.

The family, after all, is constructed around another, deeper reality. It points to the church — that household of God in which Jesus is the firstborn among many brothers. I wonder what kind of witness we could have in this kind of racially polarized culture if our churches demonstrated the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?

What if our congregational households were not so divided: white Republican enclaves down the street from black Democratic ones, upper-crust suburban churches down the highway from blue-collar rural churches? What if we demonstrated with the makeup of our own churches that we believe in the unity of the Spirit, not the divisions of the flesh?

I mentioned earlier that I was trans-ethnically adopted, and that’s quite true. Now, I grew up biologically birthed into a very rooted family, a family I can trace back for generations. But the gospel tells me that I’ve been brought into a different household. I am hidden in Christ; therefore, in him, I am the offspring of Abraham, grafted onto the vine of Israel. God accepts me because, in Christ, I am his beloved son in whom he is well pleased. I receive with Jesus everything that he receives as an inheritance — the whole cosmos.

I’m now of the tribe of Judah, one of the brothers — right along with a number no man can number from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language. I’m no longer a stranger and alien (as I am biologically), but I am fellow citizen with the saints and a member of the household of God (Eph 2:19).

When I learned Hebrew back in seminary, I was learning the language of my forefathers — the children of Abraham — even though I probably don’t have an Israelite gene in my bloodstream.

That’s why when I pray every night for my sons to marry a godly woman one day, I don’t care if she’s white, black, Latino, or whatever. I beg God that she knows Christ. It doesn’t bother me one bit if my grandchildren have a different skin color than any of the previous generations of Moores. I pray they’ll know Christ, and the power of his resurrection. And if something should happen to my wife and me, there are all kinds of people I’d be happy to see raise my children in our stead. But please, if you’re in on the decision, don’t make it on the basis of who’s “white.”

On any given day, I talk to multiple couples seeking to adopt children. And every week I hear through tear-choked voices of extended family members who are upset because the child is of a different race. You’d be surprised by how many of these extended family members are deacons or women’s ministry directors in Christian churches, blissfully unaware of the spirit of antichrist resting on them, unaware of how their own devotion to their flesh would disqualify non-Semitic folks like them from the promises of God, if not for the mercy of Christ.

Some of us need to think about whether the Lord’s calling us to adopt a child, and to put aside whether or not he or she is of our same race or background. Some of us need to put aside our hidden racist or elitist hatreds and hostilities. We need to crucify them, in fact.

But all of us need to pray, and hard, for transracial — and trans-economic and trans-generational — churches. The social workers will divide us up into categories of race — and some of the church-people will too. Jesus will do otherwise, though. He’ll sit us right down at the same table, in a common household, and he’ll feed us bread and wine — together.

What if the outside world could see church directories and family albums filled with people who look nothing alike — but who call each other “brother” and “sister” and mean it, and who unabashedly hug and kiss one another?

Perhaps the outside world would be better able to understand how black parents can love and raise an Asian daughter, how a Latino child can love his white Iowan mother, if they were to see our churches filled with people, red and yellow, black, and white, who are precious in the sight of one another.

The culture is changing but it can be good news for the church.

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About Russell Moore

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency 
of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

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