ADOPTED: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World. By Kelley Nikondeha. Foreword by Share Claiborne. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xi + 185 pages.
The idea of adoption often has a negative connotation. If one is adopted, there is often the stigma of being less than one who is unadopted. As for the mother, questions abound as to why she would give up a child. Yet, adoption is an important biblical concept. If one is a child of God, one is, as Paul suggests, adopted. In Paul’s understanding of things, to be adopted as a child of God makes one a joint heir with Jesus, God’s only begotten. Adoption is a complicated reality, but also one that has personal and theological implications.
So, what does it mean to be adopted? Kelley Nikondeha seeks to answer that question in this very personal and theologically provocative book. Nikondeha brings her own experience to the story, as one who is adopted herself, and who with her husband, has adopted two children from Burundi, which is her husband’s country of origin. Nikondeha is also the codirector and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, which is a community development organization working in Burundi. She is also the cofounder of Amahoro Africa, which seeks to encourage conversation between theologians and practitioners in Africa. I also gleaned from the book that she is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary (my alma mater).
This is a book about adoption, in two forms, familial and spiritual. It is also a book that speaks of healing a fractured world. She has seen brokenness. Her own adopted daughter was born to a mother who died of aids, and who was believed to have the disease herself. Though she at first did not wish to adopt a child who might have special needs, her love for the little girl overcame her reluctance. Fortunately, Emma, her daughter, ultimately did not carry the disease, her own struggles remind us of the risks one takes in choosing to be an adoptive parent, and as well as the blessings that come with it.
The book is ultimately about belonging, as the subtitle of the book reminds us. The use of the word sacrament to describe adoption is instructive. The use of the word sacrament in this context suggests that adoption is a means of grace. What she hopes to accomplish in this book is to encourage those who have been adopted and those exploring adoption to claim this status as one of grace. To be adopted means that one belongs to a family. Adoption provides one with a new identity, whether it is a familial identity or a spiritual one. The book therefore offers that can help us move toward a sense of belonging.
The interplay in this book between memoir and scripture is quite well done. This is not easy to do. Sometimes it seems forced, but not in this case. She offers us a way of looking at life in God's presence. She notes that "the everyday experience of adopted living teaches us about belonging beyond boundaries" (p. 5). I like that concept—belonging beyond boundaries, whether they be familial, religious, national. To be a member of the family of God is to transcend all human boundaries. This is an important message for our time, when nationalism and tribalism have reared their ugly heads. Adoption is itself a movement beyond biologically defined boundary, and as a sacrament "it shows us that adoption is a visible sign to the world that God continues to transform widows into mothers, orphans into daughters and sons, making all of us kin" (p. 5).
The book is composed of eight chapters. She begins with roots or origins. But then moves on to the concept of "relinquish." This is a beautiful chapter that explores why a mother relinquishes a child. Too often we condemn a mother for this action, but it is difficult to relinquish, but it can be powerful. Understanding why this happens is important to the child who has been relinquished. If a child is relinquished, the child is also received. In these two chapters, Nikondeha incorporates the story of Moses, whose own life illustrates this transition, as one mother must let go of her child, even as another brings him into her own family as her own.
From the discussion of receiving, Nikondeha moves to a conversation about reciprocity. I had never thought of adoption in terms of reciprocity. Yes, people adopt a child, bringing the child into one’s family, but I hadn’t thought about the need for the child to adopt the parents. Reciprocity is not always easy to accomplish. There are all kinds of barriers that hinder a response, questions may arise as to why one is being adopted. But, ultimately it will be necessary if a child is to move toward belonging. Using the story of Ruth and Naomi, Nikondeha invites us to consider what it means to be redeemed, and who might be the redeemers in our lives, those who provide a place of belonging, as Boaz did for Naomi and Ruth.
The chapter on “repair” invites us to consider the connection between tikkun olam and shalom. The author suggests that repair is connected to equity, and in this context, she discusses the biblical concept of Jubilee. In the Hebrew Bible, Jubilee is that event that takes place every fifty years, when everything reverts back to the way it was prior to the beginning of the period. Thus, slaves are set free, land returned, debts canceled. It doesn’t sound very American, and it may not work in the modern world, but it is an important reminder of what it means to live as a child of God. So, with adoption in mind, she suggests that "adoption enacts shalom for all of us" (p. 122). Adoption is, she suggests, "one way to strengthen the neighborhood" (p. 123). Adoption is ultimately about inclusion and welcome. This is a vision we truly need at this moment!
Repair leads to return, that search for our first home or mother. It is common for an adopted child to wonder about and even seek out one’s birth mother. That may seem to be an act of ingratitude, but she resists that notion. What is present here is a longing to know one’s roots. The current interest in genealogy is a good example of this longing to known one’s roots. It is a quest for meaning, which is connected to our quest to belong. The roots we seek to discover could be familial, national, or spiritual. Whatever the roots we seek out, it is an expression of our longing for answers. There are many longings, but ultimately, we have within us a longing for the world that God envisions for us, that holy mountain or new city envisioned by Isaiah. Finally, we come to the concluding chapter, titled "relatives."
We end the conversation by reflecting on what it means to be a "real family." Here belonging is as strong as biology. What she believes is that we can, whether adopted or not, we can learn from those adopted about what it means to be family, what it means to belong in a way that transcends boundaries. She writes in the concluding paragraph that Jesus is the "Gathering God, the Adopted One who crosses boundaries to show us that we are all kin despite the ways we differ from each other and even from him. In this fractured world, we belong—that's the truth that binds us to him, Our Father, who art in heaven" (p. 176).
Again, I will say that this is a beautifully written book that reveals the meaning of adoption, in all its forms. If you are adopted or have or are considering adopting a child, this is an excellent book to read. It is spiritually uplifting and informative. But, for most of us, this is a book that speaks to our spiritual longs, our desire to belong. With that in mind, Nikondeha speaks to our need in full conversation with Scripture. May we, who read this book, discover what it means to be a child of God by adoption. God has chosen to adopt us as God’s children, but to borrow from Thomas Jay Oord, the love God is not coercive, so for the adoption to be completed, we will need to reciprocate and adopt God as our parent. If we do so, perhaps we will find wholeness (shalom).