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A Feature Review of
Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2017.
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Reviewed by Lynn Domina
Part memoir, part theology, part scripture studies, Kelley Nikondeha’s Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World is a provocative and perceptive commentary on how we choose to live together. She illustrates her argument with stories from the Bible—particularly the birth of Moses, the allegiance between Ruth and Naomi, and the birth of Jesus—and from her own life. Following Paul, she suggests that we are all God’s adopted children, and that this status is crucial to our identity, not because we are second only to natural-born children, but because adoptive families are equally as loving as other families. “Because that is the essence,” she says, “of our relationship to God—our adoption—exploring what that means is vital to better understanding our membership in God’s family and its implications for our connection to one another” (2-3).
Nikondeha was herself adopted at birth, and she is also an adoptive parent, though that choice came as a bit of a surprise. Her husband is from Burundi, a small African country bordered by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania. It suffers from significant poverty exacerbated by ethnic conflict. Visiting an orphanage there, Nikondeha felt called to adopt a son, Justin, whose birth family had relinquished him due to their poverty. In the midst of the process of adopting Justin, she felt an additional call to adopt Emma, a baby whose parents had died of AIDS and who was not expected to live. She doesn’t approach the theology of adoption naively, therefore, nor as someone simply searching for a rich metaphor to explain our relationships with God and one another. Paul’s language of adoption in several of his epistles isn’t metaphorical at all, in fact, but quite literal; that is, we aren’t God’s children as if we were adopted but because we have been adopted by God. Its significance to the Biblical story isn’t hidden, though as is true of many other strands in that story, readers may not recognize the theme until it is pointed out to them.
The book is organized into eight chapters that together explore the complex contexts of adoption, from the joy of receiving a new child, to the heart-wrenching circumstances that encourage birth parents to relinquish their children and the paradoxical emotions of the children themselves. Their gratitude for being chosen and loved is inevitably bound up with the grief of what often feels like abandonment. In the opening chapter, “Roots,” Nikondeha describes the attraction she felt to Moses even as a young child: “My mother didn’t pull me out of a river, but I imagined the current that brought me to her was just as mystical and intentional. Like the other children clustered around the great big book every Sunday, I looked to see where I fit into God’s story” (9). Those words, “mystical and intentional,” describe the perception of many adoptive families; the circumstances that created the family might be atypical, but they were fated to be together nevertheless.
Adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses was raised in a family that was ethnically different from his birth family. This detail, which coincides with Nikondeha’s experience as an adoptive mother, permits her to explore the theological implications of adoption. As so many of the parables (Nikondeha offers a particularly interesting reading of the Good Samaritan) and other stories in the Bible illustrate, our call to love one another isn’t limited to those who superficially resemble us. Both literally and metaphorically, adoption encourages us to draw the circle wide, welcoming more and more people as kin.
In a later chapter, Nikondeha explores the story of Ruth and Naomi, demonstrating that adoption and family as theological concepts extend beyond the relationship between parent and child. Ruth and Naomi’s well-known story provides another example of familial connections that transcend ethnic boundaries. Ruth’s famous lines, “Where you go, I will go. And where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” often read at weddings, are at least as appropriate for an adoption ritual. Ruth and Naomi’s story expands to include Boaz and eventually Obed, whom Naomi nurses as a son. Adoption permits an increasingly inclusive family structure.
In each of her chapters, Nikondeha intertwines Biblical analysis with personal reflection. She shares stories of her own family, of friends, and of the extended communities in Burundi. As with the best of theological reflection, the Bible helps her understand her own experience, and her own experience helps her interpret the Bible. The two are never separate, and she moves smoothly from one source of insight to the other, even when she considers more abstract (or perhaps mystical) theological concepts such as the Trinity. Relating one’s personal experience to specific Biblical narratives isn’t always easy, but narratives at least mimic our understandings of how our lives unfold. Understanding an experience like adoption through an idea like the Trinity, which to my knowledge has never been explained through narrative, would seem particularly challenging. Yet even in this discussion, Nikondeha clearly relates orthodox theology to her overarching theme. After summarizing the movement of the Trinity as an eternal dance, she says, “To describe the divine reciprocity of the Godhead, the church uses the word perichoresis. Parsing the Greek, we see the word suggests a rotating movement. One translation speaks of choresis as the choreography of making room; combine that with the prefix, and you see their constant motion of creating room One for Another” (71). Creating room—that’s what adoption does within a family and a community, and it’s what God does by breathing life into us.
In our world, though, unlike our relationship with God, adoption inevitably emerges within a multifaceted arrangement of factors. Children enter foster care due to abuse or neglect, and if they’re lucky, they find their way to an adoptive family. Children are relinquished at birth because their mothers are overwhelmed and undersupported. In international adoptions, children are orphaned through war or disease or relinquished because of poverty. All of these factors challenge the Christian community to do better. In her chapter on “Repair,” Nikondeha describes how adoption is one avenue toward tikkun olam, a Jewish term that translates as “repair of the world.” Yet as necessary as repair after destruction is, it is insufficient. In her next chapter, “Return,” Nikondeha examines the evils that create such a necessity. If we truly believed in the adoptive model of family, paradoxically, we could solve many of the problems that contribute to a child’s need for adoption. If we expanded our boundaries so that we could receive all people as mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters—the way Ruth aligned herself with Naomi—we would not permit people to remain so destitute that relinquishing their children is their best option. In these chapters toward the end of her book, Nikondeha demonstrates her flexibility and responsibility as a theologian. She can interpret Biblical passages and Christian doctrine to celebrate adoption, but she also accepts responsibility as an ethicist, acknowledging what is wrong as well as right with this system of relationship.
As the passages I’ve quoted demonstrate, Nikondeha is an engaging and clear writer. Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World is refreshingly free of jargon and courteous to its audience. It is a book that can be read quickly, but it should be read slowly, and its ideas, I hope, will establish a new foundation for our family homes.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com