I must confess that I was wary of a book on how the Christian concept of adoption “speaks powerfully to our broken world.” I have read too many books and articles on the complicated realities of adoption, and how sometimes Christians are part of the problem.
But Kelley Nikondeha’s theologically rich book quickly won me over. Nikondeha writes as an adoptee, the wife of a Burundian man, and the mother of two adopted Burundian children. Her family’s bicultural and biracial identity gives her an expansive view, and her nuanced outlook is free of easy answers and sentimentality. She effortlessly braids together her own experience, the adoption stories she finds in the biblical narrative, and a theology that is both poetic and practical.
The stories of her two children are different: Her son, Justin, was relinquished by his birth mother for unknown reasons. The birth parents of her daughter, Emily, died of AIDS—her mother in childbirth and her father shortly after. Perhaps because of her own experience with adoption, Nikondeha is able to sit quietly with each of them in their sudden moments of grief and let them come up with their own questions and words.
She acknowledges moments when she doesn’t have any words of her own. After answering her daughter’s question about the crucifixion of Jesus, she discovers she has no answer when Emily asks why God didn’t resurrect her mother.
When turning to the biblical text, Nikondeha does cite the well-known adoption passages from Galatians and Romans, but notes that our contemporary understanding of adoption is an anachronism. The groups hearing those words for the first time would have been familiar with the Roman concept of adoption—the securing of heirs for inheritance and lineage, especially by emperors. What’s significant for them and for us is that Paul stretches the adoption metaphor “beyond power and politics to point to family connection.”
The author spends more time dwelling in the narrative parts of the Bible: stories of Jochebed, the relinquishing mother of Moses; Pharoah’s daughter, adoptive mother; Ruth and Naomi; and Joseph, adoptive father of Jesus. For her, Jesus is the Adopted One, and the Father is the Relinquishing One. Furthermore, the relationship embodied in the Trinity is itself an image of reciprocity and mutual adoption.
Nikondeha’s exploration of theological concepts such as redemption are multilayered and thoughtful, unlike some writers whose too-easy references can border on the messianic. She also raises the justice issues surrounding adoption— recognizing, for example, that “from Jochebed to my own mother, injustice corners many women and pushes them to let go of their children.” Adoption is “repair work,” she points out, and “we must care about preventing any injustice this side of heaven that creates the need” for this repair work.
“Repair” and “redeem” are two of the chapter titles, all of which are laden with meaning for those who have experienced adoption. For example, almost any adopted person can imagine what will be in a chapter titled “Return.” The author writes about more than the longing for a birth narrative, however. She deftly weaves together religious repatriation, the Holocaust and the Nakba (the displacement of Palestinians), American slavery, and Isaiah’s dream of God’s holy mountain.
Nikondeha’s book isn’t a how-to on adoption. In fact, she says the typical starting question of “Should we adopt?” is not scripturally informed. “In the biblical narratives, from Moses to Ruth, the question we see asked is different: How might we best contribute to God’s shalom initiative?”
Her lyrical book is a gift to people who are adopted, people who have adopted, and all Christians who want to think more carefully about the meaning of adoption and the nature of God.
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.