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Divine and human adoption

13 December 2013

Martyn Percy on families who welcome strangers into their midst

CAN you spot the connection between Moses, Muhammad, and Jesus? They are all great religious leaders, all champion a monotheistic tradition, and all hail from the Middle East. But there is a deeper tie that binds them together: they are all, in some sense, adopted.

Moses was abandoned in a coracle, and had the good fortune to be picked up by a pharaoh's daughter. Muhammad was orphaned as a child, and brought up by his uncle. Nor was Jesus, according to Christian orthodoxy, exactly the child of Joseph.

When most people think about adoption, they believe it is the child who has been rescued, and that adoptive parents are the redeemers. Yet, in three of the world's great religions, this equation is turned around, so that the adopted child becomes the redeemer, or the gift.

This is particularly true in Christian thinking, where orthodoxy teaches a kind of double adoption. One human family takes Jesus to itself in less than ideal circumstances; in return for God's adoption of us by Jesus, we are ourselves adopted into the life of God.

The plight of Mary and Joseph, and the birth of Jesus, still has a resonance in many societies. Bringing up a child that is not your own is not a modern problem. Yet in close-knit communities, and in previous generations, a child born outside marriage could bring disgrace.

It is to this potential disgrace that adoption brings something new: giftedness. Any adoptive parent will tell you that the real winner in the process is not the child, but the one who has gained the child.

It is sobering to remember that God's redemption, as portrayed in the Bible, often comes through unconventional families. God seldom uses "nice and normal" families to accomplish his purposes. Time and again, he uses the unconventional, the marginalised, and the ostracised to bring fresh revelation, breaking down old social and moral codes.

Today, as in the Bible, families who welcome strangers into their midst say something profound about the priority of humanity, community, and personhood. The act of adoption marks us out as individuals and communities for whom nurture is ultimately more important than nature, whereby love and generosity transcend genetic identity.

In Christian orthodoxy, it is commonplace to speak about the incarnation as some kind of risk. God's risk in becoming human - thereby risking rejection and alienation. Moses and Muhammad underwent different kinds of adoption, but each was also with risk.

Yet, in each case, the risk was taken not just because someone thought there was a divine plan, but because the risk was enacted among a community of gracious human beings - an uncle, the pharaoh's daughter, or a Palestinian peasant girl and her distraught fiancé. This is not just about parenting: it is about receptivity to the other, and a willingness to share your life.

Of course, this raises all kinds of questions about the limits we place on the identity of a typical family. Some of these are appropriate, to be sure. But there are also some that might stifle some of the other fluid models of family life we see in scripture. I believe that adoption is an active verb rather than a noun -that each of us needs to look at how we adopt those around us who may have needs, or may be dependent, whether they are related to us or not.

Adoption is not an isolated event that individuals once undertook. It is a process of life in which all can participate, and in which the desire to nurture is crowned by the willingness ultimately to set people free, no matter how costly that may be. Most adopters and adoptees would agree: they would say that they are all the richer for it.

This is an edited extract from Thirty-Nine New Articles: An Anglican landscape of faith by Martyn Percy (Canterbury Press, £16.99 ( CT Bookshop special offer price £14.99 - use code CT153); 978-1-84825-525-8).

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