If we are honest with ourselves, our true motives for our actions are sometimes difficult to fully understand and appreciate. For those (like me) who are quite adept at rationalization, this task becomes even more difficult. If it is this difficult to identify our own motives, then surely ascertaining and articulating the motives of other people behind their actions must be particularly perilous, especially when the actions others are engaging in are equally explainable by either laudable or lamentable motives.
As I pondered in my prior post, the actions of Westerners in Africa (and other developing nations), even when driven by indisputably admirable motives, can (i) detrimentally impact both the short-term wellbeing of those the actions were designed to help, and (ii) impede the long-term development of a country. So when, for example, Westerners send money to African orphanages, there is no legitimate dispute about the sincere desire to help. No one questions the motives of those involved; only the impact is questioned.
With respect to international adoption, however, I am increasingly hearing critics question (to put it charitably) the motives of Western (both American and European) families who come to Uganda and seek to be granted legal guardianship of orphan children. (Under Ugandan law, these children cannot be adopted in Uganda until the children have been foster parented in Uganda for three years first. Accordingly, after being granted a legal guardianship by the Ugandan courts, these families are permitted to obtain a visa from the US Embassy, which enables them to emigrate to the United States, and then (and only then) adopt the child in their home state). Legitimate questions have been (and are being) raised about the true orphan status of some (critics say many/most) of the children who are made available for legal guardianship by orphanages and families. Much more can and should be done on the front end to ascertain the true orphan status of these children before the families come to Uganda and become attached to the children.
But some (many?) critics of international adoption are not content to offer fair caution and criticism about the process. Instead the motives of the Western families are being seriously questioned in an effort to discredit the entire enterprise. At public meetings (as opposed to private conversations), opponents of international adoption are asserting that American families are coming to get “their black baby” because it is “fashionable” to have an interracial family. As I previously confessed, I have a hard enough time accurately identifying my own motives, let alone of those who I don’t know and have never met.
It is certainly true that international adoptions, including those that result in interracial families, are on the rise. I have been reliably informed that in Uganda, the number of Americans being granted legal guardianship over Ugandan children has increased fourfold in the past four years, with this year projected to be north of four hundred. I have also been reliably informed that there are 2.6 million orphans in Uganda, though many, many less than that are in institutional care (orphanages). The consensus here in Uganda seems to be that recent popular books written by influential evangelical leaders in the United States are contributing to the increase in Americans seeking to adopt internationally. Books like “Radical” by David Platt are often cited as fueling the “evangelical fervor” for international adoption. While I don’t know if there are statistics kept on the religious affiliations (or intensities) of those who seek to internationally adopt, my anecdotal observations support the notion that evangelical Christians are disproportionately represented in families seeking to gain legal guardianship of Ugandan orphans.
Furthermore, I do not deny that there is at least some evidence that the willingness of American families to pay American adoption agencies, who partner with (or, in some cases, seemingly establish and operate) Ugandan orphanages, creates incentives for Ugandan children to be matched with American families before sufficient orphan-status investigations and attempts to resettle the children can be completed. While the amount of money American families are being charged can easily be absorbed by many of these families, this amount of money often dwarfs the typical wages Ugandans otherwise earn. Consequently, the opportunity certainly exists for unscrupulous individuals to make a substantial amount of money (relative to other Ugandans) by being involved in the adoption pipeline.
I am heartened that Ugandan authorities are increasingly focusing on the potential (and real) abuses inherent in this system. It is not at all clear, however, whether those who want it cleaned up will prevail over those who, for philosophical reasons, simply want it shut down.
None of this, however, supports the notion that the motives of American families are questionable. If, in fact, the writings of Platt and others are prompting American evangelicals to decide that they have room in their families and their budgets for one (or three) more children who are languishing in deplorable conditions in developing countries, then this strongly suggests that their motives are pure. I will admit that there is a deep and cynical part of my soul that allows for the possibility that not everyone who seeks to internationally adopt is driven by a sincere desire to open their families to the less fortunate. Unless demonstrated otherwise, however, I will not question the motives of these families, but will instead offer a tool that can be used by all of us to assist in ascertaining our own motives. This tool is simply asking the “so that” question until the answer to the next “so that” question is the same as the prior one.
Let me illustrate how this “so that” tool works by using an example that is getting lots of play in the New York Times and in the legal community right now. The cost of legal education, when compared to the prospects of legal employment on the other side of law school, is causing many potential law students to rethink whether they should go to law school. It seems to me that there is a relatively easy way for law students to make this decision – simply answer the question of why they want to be a lawyer. One strand could go like this: So that I can get a job at a big firm. Why? So that I can make a large salary. Why? So that I can a can buy a big house and drive a nice car. Why? So that I can be seen as successful. Why? So that people will respect me. Why? So that I can feel good about myself and make my parents proud. Why? So that I can feel good about myself and make my parents proud. OK, so this is the end of this “so that” strand. One can then discount the risk of this “so that” strand playing out and compare that outcome to the cost of legal education and then make a decision.
But another strand could go like this: So that I can become a lawyer. Why? So that I can represent individuals who are overwhelmed by a process they cannot navigate or understand. Why? So that their suffering can be relieved. Why? So that they can be freed to reach their potential. Why? So they know that they are valuable and worthy of other people’s love. Why? So they can get a glimpse of God’s presence in their lives and in this world. Why? So they can get a glimpse of God’s presence in their lives and in this world. OK, so this is the end of this other “so that” strand, which can then be assessed against the cost of legal education. If students can make more money going to business school, but cannot fulfill what they discern to be God’s purpose for their lives, then law school will be the choice rather than business school.
Granted, nothing in life is ever as easy as a simply illustration, but this “so that” tool can be applied to all aspects of life. Why am I exercising today? Why am I taking my children to church? Why am I living in Uganda for six months?
Likewise, why am I traveling to Uganda in an effort to bring a child into my family? If it is so that I can provide a home for an orphan who has never had one, so that I can give love to a child of God who has never experienced it, so that this child can catch a glimpse of what the relationship between God and his children is like, then God bless you. If, however, if it is so that I can be like those down the street who adopted a child from Ethiopia, so that others will see me as progressive or fashionable, so that I will be respected and admired by men and women in the community, then please rethink your decision before you come here
That’s about all I have to say about (so) that.