Us and Them
Perhaps it’s some kind of strange back-to-school induced nostalgia, but today I’m thinking about parenthood and family and just how it is that my little twins have somehow become these big grade four creatures that no longer need (or want, sometimes) their hands held, or to be walked to school, or shepherded to their various activities, or any of the other things that have just been a part of life for what seems like forever. They’re growing up, I suppose, as kids are prone to do. It’s an interesting journey, this business of raising children.
I’m also thinking about Russell Moore’s Adopted for Life which I have been reading off and on for the last few weeks. My response is somewhat mixed thus far. On the one hand, I completely affirm his understanding of adoption as a central biblical theme. As an adoptive parent, I can say, without reservation, that our experience has given me an appreciation and understanding of what it means to be adopted into God’s family that I likely would never have gotten any other way. Like Moore, I think that churches and Christian families should be more willing to consider adoption as an expression of our core convictions about who God is and what God has done.
But on the other hand, there are things in the book that make me a bit uncomfortable. I just finished a section where Moore describes how they made a point of changing their children’s names from their given Russian names to “American” names as a way of symbolizing the importance of their belonging to a new family. There is certainly nothing wrong with many of their motives for doing this. They wanted their children to feel a sense of inclusion and belonging to their new family. In their case, clear markers between the life that was and the life that was beginning were deemed appropriate and necessary. Changing names was a part of this. It was a way of communicating a new identity for these children.
All that is well and good. I would certainly say that each family and each adoption story is different and presents unique challenges and opportunities. But it is when Moore makes connections between this understanding of identity and the biblical story that I begin to have a few questions. I don’t think he is necessarily wrong, but I would emphasize different parts of the story. While there is certainly language in the Bible that could justify firm and fixed identity divisions and radical conceptual breaks between old and new identities, it seems to me that the overall biblical narrative is not necessarily about getting more and more of “them” to define themselves by an existing category of “us.” Rather, I think the good news is that the gospel blows the category of “us” wide open to become bigger and broader and more diverse and inclusive than ever before. “Us” changes when “them” becomes a part of it.
This is what Paul was so concerned about in the book of Galatians. There were many who thought that Gentiles ought to adopt Jewish symbols of belonging (circumcision, observance of Torah, etc) in order to belong. On this view, the category to which one belonged (or not) remained largely the same—it was just that more people were now allowed to join the club and play by its rules. For these folks, “us” was a category that could certainly be expanded but not altered in any significant way.
In fact, according to Paul, the good news is that the club and its rules have changed to reflect a new reality. “Us” doesn’t look the same anymore. There is neither Jew, nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female in the new “us.” “Us” is a much different place than we could ever have imagined. “Us” doesn’t have the same identity markers any more. “Us” is a category that is oriented around and centred on the person and work of Jesus Christ, but will always and increasingly look different at different times and in different places because of the many different kinds of “them” that come to locate themselves in relation to that centre.
What is true of our adoption into God’s family is true of adoption into human families as well. My children have a different ethnic background than me (in fact, because my wife is half-Japanese, I am the only “white guy” in the house, as my children love to remind me!). But the kids have very ordinary Canadian-sounding names. Their names do not reflect their ethnicity in any way, largely because we have had them since the week they were born and were entrusted with the joy of giving them their first names ourselves. We did not deliberately decide to give them “Canadian” names to reflect that they were now a part of “us” rather than the “them” signified by their biological heritage.
But if we had adopted them at a year old? Or two? Or five? If they already had names and those names reflected their biological roots in an obvious way? I don’t think I would have changed them. I think I would have wanted that connection to their past to be preserved. I think it would have been symbolically powerful as an affirmation of both their biological heritage and the new family of which they were now a part. I think it would have powerfully communicated to everyone that came to know them that while their identity may have been a bit more complex than the norm, this complexity was something worth celebrating and exploring for a lifetime.
Regardless of their given names, the “us” symbolized by our two families has already been broadened and expanded to include a couple of kids who don’t look much like either the mostly Dutch-German-Russian Mennonites or the Japanese-Canadians that surround them at family gatherings. And that’s a fantastic thing! I think that “us” became more beautiful and colourful and delightfully different when two little “thems” joined nine years ago. “Us” changed when “them” was welcomed into our family.
And the same is true of God’s family, I think. It is the story of “us” becoming more beautiful and colourful and delightfully different as more and more “thems” are adopted into the family and help to grow and shape the story.