Is the Orphan My Neighbor?
— Thursday, October 7th, 2010 —I will never forget seeing her pull the measuring tape out of her purse as she talked about the skull of her child.
The woman, standing in an airport in Russia with my wife and me, was, like us, an American. She, like us, was in the former Soviet Union to pursue adoption. But she was worried. She had heard “horror stories” about fetal alcohol syndrome and various other nightmares. She said that the measuring tape was for gauging the size of the craniums of her potential children, to “make sure there’s nothing wrong with them.”
The reason I think about this conversation so much these days is because I am finding—more and more often—that one of the primary obstacles for Christians in advocating for the fatherless can be summed up right there in that measuring tape: the issue of fear. As much as we might not want to admit it, many of us don’t think much about orphans because, frankly, we’re scared of them.
Orphans are unpredictable. Often we don’t know where they’ve come from, what kind of genetic maladies and urges lie dormant somewhere in those genes. Moreover, in virtually every situation of fatherlessness, there is some kind of tragedy: a divorce, a suicide, a rape, a drug overdose, a disease, a drought, a civil war, and on and on. We’d rather not think about such things, and we’re afraid often of what kind of lasting mark they leave on their victims.
Those of us who know Christ ought to recognize that fear is often a deterrent to justice, a deterrent that has been indicted, crucified, and buried in the triumph of Jesus. In Jesus’ story of the so-called “good Samaritan,” after all, Jesus presents us with a man who “fell among robbers” and was beaten, nearly to death (Lk. 10:30). With little commentary on why, Jesus tells us, simply, that two passers-by, both religious officials, moved on to the other side, to avoid the wounded man (Lk. 10:31-32).
While many have speculated that there might have been theological reasons behind their neglect (the fear of becoming ceremonially unclean from touching a corpse), the most compelling reason I’ve ever heard was from Martin Luther King, Jr., who wondered whether the passers-by were simply afraid.
After all, there were no streetlights on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho—the setting of this story. There was no police force. A man beaten by terrorists is a good signal that the evildoers are still about, perhaps hiding in the caves along the roadside, lying in wait for their next victim. Moving on along, quickly and quietly, probably just seemed like prudence.
But Jesus never was one for justification by prudence alone. He praised a Samaritan—a reviled outcast from the official religious structures—for the compassion he demonstrated toward this man. And the compassion Jesus commended—and commanded from us in imitation—wasn’t mere charity. The Samaritan didn’t simply help the beaten man; he gave him his own animal, set him up in an inn, and paid for all his expenses for his ongoing care (Lk. 10:34-35). Any Israelite hearing this account would have seen immediately what was going on. The Samaritan was treating the beaten man like family.
Right now, there is a crisis of fatherlessness all around the world. Chances are, in your community, the foster care system is bulging with children, moving from home to home to home, with no rootedness or permanence in sight. Right now, as you read this, children are “aging out” of orphanages around the world. Many of them will spiral downward into the hopelessness of drug addiction, prostitution, or suicide. Children in the Third World are languishing in group-homes, because both parents have died from disease or have been slaughtered in war. The curse is afoot, and it leaves orphans in its wake.
Not every Christian is called to adopt or to foster children. And not every family is equipped to serve every possible scenario of special needs that come along with particular children. Orphan care isn’t easy. Families who care for the least of these must count the cost, and be willing to offer up whatever sacrifice is needed to carry through with their commitments to the children who enter into their lives.
But, while not all of us are called to adopt, the Christian Scriptures tell us that all of us are called to care “widows and orphans in their distress” (Jas. 1:27). All of us are to be conformed to the mission of our Father God, a mission that includes justice for the fatherless (Exod. 22:22; Deut. 10:18; Ps. 10:18; Prov. 23:10-11; Isa. 1:17; Jer. 7:6; Zech. 7:10). As we are conformed to the image of Christ, we share with him his welcoming of the oppressed, the abandoned, the marginalized; we recognize his face in the “least of these,” his little brother and sisters (Matt. 25:40).
The followers of Jesus should fill in the gap left by a contemporary Western consumer culture that extends even to the conception and adoption of children. Who better than those who have been welcomed by Christ to care for the most feared and least sought after of the world’s orphans? After all, who are we, as those who are the invited to Jesus’ wedding feast? We are “the poor and the crippled and the blind and the lame” (Lk. 14:21). Since that is the case, Jesus tells us, we are to model the same kind of risk-taking, unconditional love (Lk. 14:12), the kind that casts out fear.
Yes, orphan care can be risky. Justice for the fatherless will sap far more from us than just the time it takes to advocate. These kids need to be reared, to be taught, to be hugged, to be heard. Children who have been traumatized often need more than we ever expect to give. It is easier to ignore those cries. But love of any kind is risky.
The Gospel means it’s worth it to love, even to the point of shedding your own blood. After all, that’s what made a family for ex-orphans like us.