Family, against all odds

I had a friend in college who once said to me that, though he considered himself an atheist, he wanted so badly to believe there was something, anything out there watching over us with tender love and care. He just couldn’t. I was always struck by this because I felt the exact opposite: whereas he was burdened by his lack of belief, I was always burdened by my faith. I wanted not to believe. The last thing I wanted to accept is that this life is all part of some grand plan, some ornate and elaborate blessing after blessing or curse after curse or some hodgepodge of the two. And while I don’t know whether I was ready to throw it all to coincidence, it just feels to me even now like it might be a little simpler if I were more in control of my fate, if God or the Universe or the Great Whatever wasn’t hovering over, because like most of you, I cringe at the notion of being out of control.

But my friends who know I’m adopted from birth and know that I’d communicated with my New Jersey birth family since returning from Morocco will know that some strong sense of purpose, some path-crossing synchronicity, has complicated all of those doubts and beliefs of mine over these past few years. Unbeknownst to me, it was finding out my birth father had worked in the church – just as I had. And it was finding out just after returning from two years of living in Morocco (a place Peace Corps had sent me some seventy years after my grandfather had lived and worked there in the War) that in fact, I was tied to Morocco in another way, since my biological father had traveled there and to Southern Spain around the time of my birth. Of all the places on the planet to be tied to my New Jersey biological family and to my Tennessee adoptive one, it seemed so strange that Morocco would be it.

Sometimes, when you get this kind of news, it seems so unbelievable that it feels like it came out of a movie. People call it “stranger than fiction,” and it is. I worry it’s so strange that it inflates my ego and gives me the false notion that I’m in some sort of Truman Show scenario. Would someone please tell Ed Harris to stop already? There is even a part of me that hears it, knows it to be true, and yet cannot fully accept it, because to do so makes me feel sometimes as though I’ve either fabricated these events in my head and am a pathological liar, or even if it is true, why entertain it because no one else would ever believe it anyway? If there’s anything I’ve learned these past few years, it’s that truth is almost always the scarier reality. But sometimes the more beautiful one despite the silly things we fear.

On Christmas day, I left a little sentimental gift for my girlfriend’s adopted brother, Zech. It was a children’s book I loved that was mostly drawings by John Lennon, and I’d penned a little note on the inside saying that I’d always felt a kindred spirit with this Beatle who’s mother had died when he was young and whose father had disappeared. You gravitate a little to the people who share and understand your story, even if theirs is slightly different, and in the past few months, I’ve gravitated more to Zech and really come to think of him as a brother of sorts.

Truthfully, even though I’d known her family for years, I didn’t even really know Mattie had an adopted brother until we started talking just before I moved to New York. I’d only really known Mattie as someone with roots in Tennessee and had been close with her aunt for years since Mattie and I had both “grown up” at the same camp where her aunt worked, Lakeshore. A few months ago, we discovered that Mattie’s mom, too, in attending Lambuth University in my hometown, had known my grandmother who worked for the Dean. Small towns are small towns, so no major surprises there, and the Methodist community is not a terribly large one. But it was still one of those nice human connections that we made, one of those moments when you discover you have a shared history in some way or another, and that’s always a little affirming.

When I left Shelter Island almost exactly a year ago as I write this, Mattie’s family was a refuge to me as I job-searched New York City and New Jersey. They took me in and treated me as family. It seemed fitting that I’d end up somehow in New Jersey since my roots were on the Jersey side of Philadelphia. And when Zech moved home, it felt like just one more member of the family was showing up.

So, on New Year’s Eve when Zech and I were talking about our Irish ancestry, he mentioned his birth name, and I jokingly asked how he spelled it since it sounded similar to my own. When it was the same, I asked again, “Wait, I’m a Johnston; aren’t you from outside of Philadelphia?” We both started naming areas: Cherry Hill, Mt. Laurel. I mentioned my birth father’s name, and Zech mentioned his grandfather’s name, and that his grandfather had died three weeks ago, and he pulled out a picture of my birth father, his grandfather. My girlfriend’s adopted brother is my biological nephew. His mother is my biological half-sister.

Like I said, stranger than fiction. I want to write Nate Silver, the famous statistician, and ask how that’s statistically possible that a girl I met in Tennessee happened to have someone adopted into her family who was my biological kin in New Jersey. When we sat down with the family to tell everyone else what we’d discovered, Zech joked that I will be more related to his child than anyone else in the family once the kid is born. These days bring a quiet reflective awe, an awe at the power of fate or coincidence, whichever it is.

And so, indeed, back to that whole conversation about coincidence and fate. What am I to say? The facts are in front of me. They are either the craziest coincidence ever or there’s some force pushing us toward a certain reality. Or maybe that’s too limiting a view? Maybe this happenstance and others like it are far more common than we realize or might choose to believe. If you told me that my grandfather had crossed paths with a Moroccan who knew my biological father fifty years later and who also met me when I lived in Morocco, I just don’t think I’d be surprised at all anymore. In fact, knowing how small Morocco can be, I half-expect that was the case. And not because fate wills it that way or because coincidence rules the day with its own sense of destiny or lack thereof but because we, dear humans, are so much more connected than we too often choose to realize. Redneck jokes and “I’m my own Grandpa” music aside, we cannot deny the interconnectedness we all share – sometimes an interconnectedness we may know nothing about. What if this revelation had never come my way? In a way, it changes nothing, because I’d already decided to love Zech as family. Nor does this revelation take away from the daily decisions I’ll make down the road. I am not bound to Zech now anymore than I was before. Because unless I am bound by love, all other sense of duty and obligation is vapid and meaningless. Who we make our family is as much a matter of our choice as it is a matter of blood, and that has far-reaching implications for the world we now face, a world where we seem so divided by our choices to be distant, by our perceived sense of kinship: “you who are not my kin because you think differently or look differently.” I’ve played into that narrative too frequently myself, and maybe sometimes, we do distance ourselves from the ‘family’ because doing so becomes temporarily necessary for our safety and sanity, but how should I act if the family is much bigger than I was prepared to admit before? How should I act if the family is, yes, blood, but is also bigger than blood and, indeed, global? To that friend in college who struggled to believe, I think our sense of the divine, then, is rooted not in belief but in active, faithful choices of love. Whether there’s a God overseeing that or not is less important as whether you chose to love as big and bigger than you might have intended when you started on this little journey we all share. And anything we might call God that lacks that faithful action really isn’t a god I’d like to believe in anyway. However I construe it, I do see something sacred and whole in the choices behind me and in the choices ahead.

In the meantime, you can just think of me as your crazy Uncle Phil. Whether by blood or by choice, there’s a good chance we’re related anyway.

Gateway to the Somewhere

Walking around St. Louis lately, I’ve noticed how the city changes for me the more I get to know it. It’s like when you walk down an unfamiliar street, and the first few times you do it, the color of the pavement blends just enough with the dull tone of the concrete buildings to almost make it into a blurred background image easily forgotten.

The Lou

Your first time venturing anywhere new, you’re so focused on the destination and on not getting lost that the details of the place just kinda fade. But the more you walk a path, the more familiar it becomes, and the more familiar it becomes, the easier it is to notice the little things. This past week, meandering throughout downtown St. Louis has been that for me as the city morphed from that weird blur of general “downtownness” to something with a personality and a feel to it. There was that one dilapidated Tudor building with the timber framing sitting lonely among the steel-and-glass. Or the way, at night, Washington Avenue is lit-up like Christmas. There was the realization that the Public Library, architectured almost like a great, academic cathedral of sorts, was due west of the apartment and only a few blocks away in relation to everything else that’s come to matter to me since I got here. And, of course, the people – conversations of kindred that even when you don’t know them at all have offered something to the familiarity of the place. Yesterday in the gelato shoppe, a man decked out in a soldier’s uniform walked in with three young, black boys probably between eight and ten years old and bought them all something. On his way out, he confessed, “I don’t actually know them at all. They just saw my uniform and asked for an autograph, so I figured I’d do something nice in return.”

I used to think a place chooses you. Like, if you grow up on a farm, you’re bound to grow into that and the lifestyle that comes with it. I wouldn’t say that I deny the truth of that necessarily, but nowadays, I tend to think we choose the place, too. That it’s a both-and kind of thing. The more familiar a place becomes, the more likely you are to claim it as your own, after all. And St. Louis has become mine in a way that I’ve enjoyed making it mine. Even the buildings that aren’t quite as aesthetically pleasing as the others lend to the familiarity like puzzle pieces filling in the parts to make it whole, and sometimes, it’s the pieces that are the same color as all the others that, without them, keep the puzzle unfinished. In that sense, I’ve come to love and want to know more every nook-and-cranny of the city I can absorb and commit to memory.

To me, St. Louis is a city of choice, a kind of merging of paths. I get why it’s called the Gateway to the West, but a gateway West is a gateway East, too. I sometimes feel as if I’m looking as far down each path as I can see with the naked eye, imagining where it might take me if I choose that path but at the same time perfectly content to simply imagine until something greater pushes me in that direction rather than forcing it. But as I imagine, I’m grown content to be in the here-and-now standing at the entrance neither too eager to enter or exit and recognizing that the door does both at the same time. A city of choices is a city bound to the cycle of life, its ends and beginnings. And I’m grown content to be present to that cycle, however brief or lengthy that may be, without getting caught in the need to move through the doors. It’s a bit like serving as a kind of doorkeeper watching the world pass before me eager to keep some constant pace rushing West or East as though they’re caught in the blur rather than absorbing all the wonderful chaos they might have noticed had they stood still for just five minutes. Having been on both sides of the doorway, it’s nice to just stand there observing, greeting, growing familiar.

Making the Best Choice, a closer look at international adoptions

CNN has been publishing several stories about adoption lately. The most recent is an interesting piece on South Korean adoptions highlighting where several adoption agencies have lied about the identities and ages of birth parents to make a child seem more appealing to foreigners wishing to adopt. There is such a stigma in South Korean culture around unwed mothers that far too many adoptions contain false information from birth parents trying to hide the origins of their children. So, naturally, Korean activists are now coming forward to try to invoke change. One in particular, an adoptee named Jane Trenka, is fighting to end South Korean international adoptions altogether as a means to curve the stigma around unwed mothers. To quote from the article,

“The best option is always for a child to be parented by his or her birth parent,” she said. “Then domestic adoption, and only then intercountry adoption.”

That makes slight sense if you’re coming at this issue solely from the perspective of the birth parent and what that parent may feel is ideal. But what if you approach this issue from the perspective of the adoptee?

The best option is not necessarily always for a child to be parented by his or her birth parents. Such a notion is heavily dictated by our ongoing obsession with genetics and blood-relation. The best option for a child to be parented is that a child is parented by someone who will love and nurture that child. That should always be the trump card. If a biological parent is incapable of making those provisions for the child, then they are not the best choice for the child, plain and simple. And sometimes, that’s obvious even before the child is conceived. The notion that blood-relation is the ideal creates a second-class citizenship around adoptees and implies that what they got was somehow “second best.” Or third, Trenka would argue, if the adoption was international. I would ask why domestic adoption trumps international adoption. I suspect Trenka would feel that children should remain in families of the same race, and that notion is just bigoted. We as a society must shed the idea that kinship is only built on blood. Kinship is a social construct. Parenting language has to be earned. It is not given by God. It is not guaranteed by blood.

There are, I’m sure, many issues that need to be tackled surrounding international adoptions, as there are any adoptions. Some of these activists are probably making really positive headway on those issues. After all, the stigma surrounding unwed mothers, has to be dealt with not only in South Korea but everywhere. And yet, no adoption agency or government should ever work under the assumption that the “best option” is for a child to be with his or her birth parents. The starting question should always be, “Who is most capable of loving and nurturing this child?” So, while a birth mother may be the first person to ask that question, that alone won’t make her the ideal parent. And mothers who put their children up for adoption often do so because they understand how they might answer that question and understand up front that they are not the “best choice.”

Making Kin, or why every family must adopt

If you were to ask folks how you go about creating a family, the most common answer would almost certainly have something to do with marriage and sex.  Sure, there are other ways to start a family, like adoption, but given that adoptions only account for between 2-4% of American families today, it’s no surprise that most answers to how families are made would have to do with sex.  That’s how most people start a family, after all.

There’s one big problem with this, however.  Sex makes babies, but sex doesn’t make relationships.  Relationships take work.  They require commitments and responsibility.  They require communication and attention.  That’s true of all sorts of relationships from friendships to dating to marriage, and it’s also true of parent-child relationships.

That may not sound like a shocking statement.  Of course relationships take work.  But think for a moment about the fact that nearly every relationship you’ve ever had, outside of family, had to be earned.  Many people, certainly not enough of them, sought to build trust before they moved from a serious relationship to the commitment of marriage.  Even in friendship, people gain and lose friends all the time, and often, those relationship statuses hinge on things like loyalty and reliability and reciprocity.  You get to choose your friends and dating partners, and you are likely to base those decisions on positive qualities.  In fact, the only exception to this I could come up with was co-workers, but even those relationships hinge on certain expectations.  You might not be able to get rid of a terrible co-worker as easily as you wish you could, but your co-worker still has responsibilities, theoretically, that they must fulfill in order to keep their job.

So, what makes the family different?  What makes the parent-child relationship automatic?  Blood-relation?

The reality is this: we’ve been socialized to believe that if a baby comes from your womb (or your spouse’s womb), that automatically forms kinship.  The baby becomes your child for no other reason, really, than the fact that it shares your genetics.  Of course, sharing genetics can be a powerful bonding factor.  When a mother goes through the task of carrying a child to term, there exists the genesis of a bond even before the baby is born.  And yet, genetics, blood, or carrying a child to term cannot guarantee how “motherly” that mother may be to the child.  Nor can it guarantee how present or active a role “Dad” will take.  If it did, we wouldn’t need a foster care system.  And with 35% of American children being raised in single-parent homes, we have to be careful about suggesting that biology or genetics make it more likely that the bonds of kinship are secure.   They may be for one of those parents, but not necessarily for both.

So, if blood doesn’t make you family, what does?  I think it’s worth noting that the word “conceive,” a word often used during pregnancy to denote family-making, shares synonyms with words like “imagine” or “think” or “understand.”  I would add “choose” or “adopt” to that list.  And I’m not talking about legal adoption.  Sure, legal adoption is, certainly, one way to start a family.  But think about what legal adoption symbolizes: it is a process by which a person voluntarily accepts, by choice, to take on the responsibilities of parenting.

Not every parent has to go through that legal process.  But every parent who wishes and deserves to be called a parent – a mother or a father – has to voluntarily accept, by choice, to take on the responsibilities of parenting.  Or to say that more simply, if you want to be a parent, you have to “adopt” your kid.

That still may not sound revolutionary.  So, I’ll close with a story to shed some light on what I mean:

Let’s say, growing up, Billy Bob had a set of terrible biological parents.  They performed the menial responsibilities of parenting: they fed him, clothed him, gave him shelter.  But Billy Bob was never really accepted.  Occasionally, he was beaten by a drunk father.  At other times, his mother teased or harassed him in an abusive way.  Now that Billy is all grown up, his parents come around occasionally, making demands of him, still treating him like a second-class citizen rather than their son.  Billy has every right to stand up for himself, most would say, but he doesn’t.  His reason?  “They’re my Mom and Dad.  What am I supposed to do?  Get rid of them?”

Biology too often answers Billy Bob’s question with a firm “No.  They’re your parents, and unfortunately, you’re stuck with them.”

Adoption answers the question by asking, “Did they earn the right to be called your parents, the same way all other relationships have to earn their keep?”  To be fair, different people may answer that question differently.  Perhaps their role in feeding, clothing, and sheltering Billy Bob is enough reason for him to feel the need to reach out and give way to their demands.  But the point is, Billy has a choice.  That’s what adoption puts on the table.  And the harder Billy clings to the narrative that blood relation is what makes you kin, the less likely he is to realize that he does, in fact, have a choice on who he calls his parents.  Divorcing himself from the family is not easy, just like kicking a bad friend out of your life isn’t easy, but holding a family to stricter standards of what it means to be family – essentially forcing them to adopt you – could deeply redefine kinship in a powerful and positive way.      

Jesus and Adoption: Some Surprising Facts in Light of the Recent Debates on Gay Marriage

Those in favor of traditional marriage argue that marriage exists for the sole purpose of procreation and to maximize the likelihood that a child is raised by both biological parents.  Whether you agree or disagree with gay marriage, the idea that any marriage exists solely for procreation is anti-adoption.  This argument suggests that straight, single parents or sterile parents shouldn’t raise children.  And it’s just a little scary hearing the Christian right trumpeting blood relation as the “ideal.”  But let’s face it: they wouldn’t be making this argument if it weren’t for the way they have historically read their Bible.

There’s been so much writing on the issue of homosexuality and the Bible, that I’ve no interest in dragging that dead horse out and beating it over the head one more time.  But adoption and the Bible is a topic not many people have discussed, and it’s an important topic surrounding this debate.  I thought I would take a moment to ask, “What does the New Testament have to say about adoption, or similar forms of fictive kinship?”  So, here’s five interesting topics you might not have known about Jesus and adoption fittingly timed with Easter:

1. Jesus, the adopted savior.  Jesus is adopted not once, not twice, but three times in the Gospel of Matthew (and Luke).  The first one is an easy one: when Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant and it’s not his kid, he plans to divorce Mary (Mt. 1:19) until an angel instructs him to take the child as his own and name him Jesus (1:21).  So, Jesus’ birth begins with a scandal and questionable origins.  Keep that in mind.  Later, when Jesus is all grown up, God descends upon him at his Baptism and says, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well-pleased” (3:18).  This heavenly and public declaration takes the form of a naming ceremony where God “chooses” or “adopts” Jesus as his own.  And this happens again at the Transfiguration as an exact repeat (Mt. 17).  This time Moses, also a Biblical adoptee, and Elijah appear in a bright cloud, and a voice booms out repeating the naming ceremony from Ch. 3 with the emphatic addition, “Listen to him!” (17:5).

Admittedly, the adoption stories are a bit oddly-placed.  If God made it clear to Mary and Joseph that he was the biological “baby-daddy,” why also adopt Jesus later?  Biological parents don’t usually need to adopt their children.  One possibility, however, is that the adoption becomes a public display of Jesus’ sonship, like a proud parent saying to everybody on the football field after the great play, “Heck yeah, that’s m’boy!”  Thus, while biological parents don’t need to partake in the legal process of adopting their children, they do regularly “claim” their children in a proud moment, which can be regarded as a metaphor for adoption, a term that is often interchangeable with the concepts of being “chosen,” “claimed,” “called,” “placed,” “named,” etc.

A different perspective that I like is that the adoption story (of Jesus’ Baptism) was written first, as it appears in the Gospel of Mark, and the Christmas story (which is missing from Mark and John) was a later, embellished fabrication written to drive the point home that Jesus was God’s literal son in the flesh, not just a special helper God called “son.”  In fact, if the adoption story is taken to be true, the Christmas narrative may be an attempt to take the scandal of Jesus’ beginnings and turn it into something good.  However, scholars are not in agreement which was written first – the adoption story or the Christmas story.

If we’re to believe anything historical about the Christmas story, I think it’s also worth noting here that Jesus’ earthly family wasn’t your typical, or ideal, adoptive family.  One parent, Mary, is Jesus’ biological mother.  However, some scholars believe that Joseph could have been the biological father, as well.  After all, when the text says that Joseph and Mary were “betrothed” to be married, this was different from engagements today.  In Jewish betrothals, it was expected that the wife moved in with the husband once the two were engaged.  Thus, sexual relations were not exactly unheard of during this part of the marriage process.  If we are to take Matthew or Luke at their word, there is a third parent – God – who is both a biological and an adoptive parent of Jesus.  It’s a complicated family, to say the least, and I’ll say more about that later.

2. Adoptionists and other Adopted Gods.  There is ample evidence suggesting that there were some early Christians called “adoptionists” (also called “dynamic monarchianists” or perhaps even “Ebionites,” though this distinction is complicated) who rejected the birth story and who were therein labeled heretics.  These Christians would have rejected early concepts of trinitarian theology (that Jesus, like the Father and the Spirit, was fully divine), because they didn’t equate Jesus with God.  Instead, they saw Jesus as a special prophet, appointed and adopted by God but not necessarily divine.  This shows that even in the 1st and 2nd centuries, people were trumpeting blood relation and did not like it when someone suggested that Jesus wasn’t related to God by blood.  Sound familiar?

Of course, we need not think that adoption was always given a negative portrayal in the Greco-Roman or Jewish milieu.  To the contrary, being called a “Son of God” was pretty common in the 1st century, so there was nothing revolutionary about Jesus referring to himself as God’s adopted kid.  You even see this today in churches where people refer to themselves as “God’s children” or a “Child of God.” You also saw it among the Emperors.

Upon the death of Julius Caesar when Octavian becomes the new Emperor through posthumous adoption, the Latin “Divi Filius,” “Son of God,” is used not to highlight Octavian as divine but to highlight his adoptive father, Julius, as a god.  Thus, blood relation was, by no means, the only way to attain divine kinship, and it’s worth asking whether the author of Mark (et. al.) was interested in drawing connections to Jesus’ imperial contemporaries.  Roman citizens who heard that Jesus had been adopted by God would have, no doubt, been reminded of the adopted, divine Emperors, Octavian and Tiberius.  Whether a non-Greek author would have gotten the reference is less clear.

3. Paul’s interest in adoption.  Of course, while Jesus is adopted by Joseph and by God, there is no legal language in the Gospels indicating adoption.  The Greek word for legal adoption, huiothesia, doesn’t show up in the text until you begin to read Paul’s epistles.  Now, this is a curious thing.  Paul rarely mentions Jesus as an historical guy walking around Galilee.  When he talks about Jesus, he’s usually just talking theology: he’s talking about Jesus as God, not Jesus as a human.  On a few rare occasions, he refers to Jesus’ biological brothers (1 Cor 9:5) and to Jesus as having Davidic lineage (Rm. 1:3), so one of the big questions surrounding Paul is this: what did he know about the historical Jesus? Or more specifically, for the conversation at hand, what – if anything – did he know of Jesus’ adoptive origins?  Could those origins have influenced his theology?

Paul mentions legal adoption five times in his letters (three times in Romans and once each in Ephesians and Galatians).  All of the references are pretty similar and they usually sound like this one from Galatians: “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.  Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’  So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir” (Gal 4:4-7).

So, Paul knows Jesus was “born of a woman” and that he was born “under the law” (meaning he was a Jew) and then turns to say that Jesus’ purpose was to legally adopt his followers.  So, he makes two historical statements about the life of Jesus, neither of which clarify paternity, and then suddenly jumps to a lofty theological statement about Jesus’ ministry in terms of adoption.  Perhaps Paul’s commentary about Jesus’ role in “adopting” his followers is another historical statement about Jesus as an adoptee who rejected biological kinship to instead favor kinship formed out of obedience to God. To understand that, we need to consider what, exactly, Jesus had to say about kinship.  Was Paul right when he suggested that Jesus wanted to “adopt” his followers?

4. Jesus tells us to hate our family.  Jesus was known for saying some pretty radical things.  It’s worth noting that he didn’t think too kindly of biological kinship: “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.  And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple'” (Lk. 14:25-27).  It’s become pretty common to dismiss such hard sayings as hyperbole.  Some Christians will suggest, “Oh, Jesus didn’t really mean you should ‘hate‘ your family.  He just means don’t put your family before God.”  Other Christians look at this text and argue that Jesus is only interested in highlighting role reversals (e.g. later in the chapter, he favors inviting strangers to your wedding instead of your friends).

I’d like to suggest that Jesus’ commands to “hate your family” may have been related to his biological’ origins.  I told you to keep the scandal in mind, didn’t I?  I mean, look at what we know: Luke tells us that Jesus wasn’t welcome in his hometown (Lk. 4:24); at an early age, one of the only stories of his childhood in fact, Luke also tells us that Jesus runs away from his family.  When his mother admonishes him from running away, Jesus responds that he went to his “Father’s house” (Lk. 2:49).  Can you imagine being Joseph and hearing your son say, “I went to my real Dad’s house.”  This could indicate tension between Jesus and Joseph, a character who drops out of the Biblical narrative almost as soon as he was first mentioned.

Moreover, it is very likely that, growing up, the scandal of Jesus’ birth followed him around everywhere.  Even after his death, the scandal of his birth never really goes away.  For example, Origen tells us of an anti-Christian writer named Celsus who was arguing as early as the 2nd century that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier named Panthera.  While many scholars have dismissed this claim of Celsus’, it’s worth mentioning because it demonstrates the difficulty Jesus could have had shaking the claims of bastardy.  After all, being a bastard – or a mamzer in the Hebrew – would have delegitimized not only Jesus origins but also his ministry, as the mamzer was forbidden from entering the Temple, according to Deuteronomy 23:2.  A mamzer, by the way, was not simply someone born out-of-wedlock but also born from a sinful sexual act, particularly prostitution.  Perhaps the reason isn’t welcome in his hometown, and the reason he enters Temples where his origins are unknown can be connected to this history. At any rate, if Jesus ever struggled with his adoption or with questions of illegitimacy at all, it would be no surprise that he would eschew biological kinship to instead favor kinship formed with God.  So, while his statement may, indeed, be a form of hyperbole or of displaying role reversals between the “least of these” and the “greatest,” it stands to reason that we should also consider how Jesus’ own family life affected his views of family values.

5. Jesus’ family values aren’t always hateful.  While on the one hand, Jesus tells us to hate our family, he also redefines family: “Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But he answered them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it'” (Lk. 8:19-21). Of course, one way to read this is to view it in light of what I already said about Jesus’ potential disdain for his family. Perhaps not letting Mary and James (or another brother, perhaps) near him is just one more jab at the biological family. Was he suggesting, then, that his mother and brothers had not heard or followed the word of God? (Also, where is Joseph?).

Regardless of whatever ill-will Jesus may have held toward his family, I suspect that he is more interested in redefining the family as a unit based on obedience to God. On the one hand, that’s not exactly adoption. On the other hand, it’s so starkly against blood relation that it’s a heck of a lot more like adoption than it is being born into a family. It’s kinship based on choices, after all.

In any case, Jesus’ family values should really raise some serious questions about the importance conservative Christians today place on blood relation.  Jesus did not think of a family as existing for the sole purpose of procreation with a biological father and mother always present.  His own family didn’t even meet those standards.  It was, instead, a complicated family with only one clear biological parent, and two, if not three, fathers whose paternity was disputed to say the least.  If we’re going to construct modern legal language around the Bible, let’s at least be clear that the Bible isn’t exactly clear on what the family should look like.