Monday, September 9, 2013

Was Hana Williams Just a Casualty in the Quiverfull Culture War? Establishing the Landscape of Dehumanization in Missionary Adoption

Today, we may hear a verdict in the Williams Trial, determining the fate of Larry and Carri Williams of Scagit County, Washington. 

The jury must make a host of decisions about the nature of the harm suffered by the two children they adopted from Ethiopia – Immanuel and Hana. Among other considerations, they must determine beyond reasonable doubt whether Hana was sixteen or thirteen, the degree of the abuse/neglect that the children suffered, whether the parents did so in ignorance, and whether their actions directly caused Hana's death in May 2011. This previous post briefly explores the background in greater detail.

While justice for these children weigh on my own heart and mind today, I cannot also help but ponder the many reasons why such extreme events ever needed to occur. I've discussed the potency of the ideological influences and the spiritual blackmail that strategies to raise perfect children impose on Christian parents, and I would like to revisit some of them in weeks to come. In the discussion of the similar case of Lydia Schwartz, I drew heavily from the research of Bandura, Zimbardo, and Milgram who studied whether and how average, good people can be capable of committing terrible if not deadly acts when influenced by the combined pressure of authorities, peers, and ideological assumptions. In the examples of the Williams Family who adopted from Ethiopia and the Schatz Family who adopted from Liberia, the subject of adoption and Evangelical Christians' ideology-fueled interest in it emerges as a significant consideration.

Understanding the Landscape

In 2008, I presented a workshop on the growing Patriarchy Movement among Evangelical Christian homeschoolers, describing it as a quite varied or “non-monolithic” group of people who were afraid of the negative cultural and religious influences on their children. These concerned parents who feel beleaguered seek out strategies to help them become not only efficient at parenting but flawless as Christians. 

Consistent with this trend within the larger secular culture, the Christian community suffers no lack of plans and packaged programs to help achieve nearly any desired end, and I often borrow Mark Noll's descriptor of “theological innovation” to describe such strategies. The smaller subgroup of Evangelical homeschoolers who view homeschooling and various associated lifestyle choices as their preferred theological innovation suffer no lack of gurus and experts who offer formulaic approaches to help them accomplish their grand mission. Many of these parents defer to the literature of men like Michael Pearl who mixes warm-hearted Christian sentiment and anachronisms with an aggressive approach to corporal punishment – an approach that becomes difficult for most people to put into pragmatic perspective when coping with particularly challenging children.

Too many of these systems and strategies simply have not only been tried and tested, they also make empty, aggrandized promises to families. Those trusting families become what I've called “crash test dummies” in the past – subjects in religious social experiments devised by (hopefully) well-meaning but short-sighted, self-proclaimed experts in parenting. The community of people who have employed these approaches have also been poorly informed about emerging problems, or those that employ them see no similarities between their system and previous ones that have failed or have resulted in fatality.

In my focus on the Patriarchy Movement, I also often discuss the pessimistic paternalism that characterizes many of the primary players within this Christian subgroup of homeschoolers. One of the most popular posts on this site explores how Calvinism turns into Karma, as many other posts also discuss. It isn't exactly consistent with karma, however, but there are some similar elements. The five points of Calvinism were devised as a position and response statement which was meant to defend God's sovereignty – a defense that defines God as omnipresent and omnipotent instead of some hapless entity who crosses his weak, bony fingers while hoping that the world turns out alright while men enjoy free-will. Today, we often see it applied broadly as a statement that becomes a cause for dehumanizing others. Those who distort these concepts in this way not only misuse them to define themselves as something of a higher life form, they see the non-Christian as less than human. From a karmic perspective, these “non-elect” that God has chosen for death before they're even born get what they've merited when they suffer, because God is said to hate them. More often, I call this “survival of the spiritually fittest” or “spiritual eugenics,” as this is more fitting than the concept of karma.

The concept of deserved punishment intensifies when the struggles Christians face are presented to them by leaders like Russell Moore as part of a greater, literal “culture war,” and Christians are the warriors who must conquer as their duty owed to God. He's even said that we are to become a “kingdom of freaks” to accomplish the mission, if we must (Feb 2007; CBMW's Different by Design Conference). The time-honored tradition of dehumanizing one's enemy in a time of war helps facilitate one's willingness to engage in battle, with the full expression of war resulting in the conquer of an enemy or their death. The status of war, even down to the uniforms one wears, gives otherwise regular people the liberty to commit certain acts that they would never do during peacetime, nor to another human being in general. 

Here, I believe, the status of non-elect (the person who will never become a Christian) combined with an often haughty superiority of Westerners (believed within the subgroup to be the result of Christianity) adds to creating an adversarial attitude and a license to behave aggressively. Anyone who is not a Westernized Christian and a Christian of the “correct” purist belief is deemed as an enemy if not a scapegoat. (Read more HERE.) Within aberrant subgroups of this arm of Christian homeschooling movement, all of these ideas coalesce with fear and contribute to their unique variety of cloistered community which often leads to intense social isolation for individual families. I believe that this endpoint manifested in both the Williams and the Schatz Families, based on media reports of their behavior after the adoptions.

One must also understand that Calvinism (an argument defending God's sovereignty) is just one of many distinct beliefs adopted by those who follow Covenant Theology. Covenant Theology shares a stronger tie to Old Testament beliefs than do other Protestant Christian systems of doctrine, so it is more “dominionist” in its approach to the “culture war.” The larger theme of the Bible concludes with the prophecy of God's re-establishment of Himself as the ruling authority on the earth in every literal sense, and the dominionist sees himself as the agent through whom God will accomplish this. By formal definition in Covenant Theology, evangelism and proselytism should be a one-on-one, grass roots endeavor, but many who espouse it today also give into a pressure and urgency to pursue dominion assertively if not aggressively. Jesus said that His kingdom was not of this world, but the dominionist feels a responsibility to actively accomplish the prophecy of the full realization of God's Kingdom on the earth in the literal sense. For the Christian who is of this mindset, one must first evangelize individuals; then move on to purify one's church, denomination, and faith; and then “take dominion” over society. The dominionists also differ from other sects or denominations in that they prefer authoritarianism as a tool by which they seek to accomplish change within the movement as well as their aggressiveness with others outside of their sect.

The Great Commission through Foreign Adoption: Growing the Quiverfull “Covenant Community”

Author Kathryn Joyce wrote about the the theological innovation of dominionism through birthing large families in her 2010 book, Quiverfull. I found Joyce's excellent assessment critical, but the work did not include a focus on the ideological and theological influences that I see as also helpful in understanding the group. As a Christian who also appreciates the significance of the insidious patterns of spiritual abuse and thought reform within ideological groups, I wish that the book could have accommodated more information about these influences within the quiverfull subculture.

I become more and more convinced daily that dominionists have taken advantage of the homeschooling movement and the gender debate as their own innovations to broaden their grasp and influence. Covenant Theology's view of the special benefits and blessings of Christian family tradition that God is thought to bestow upon “covenant children” in the “covenant community” (the fellowship of the elect Christians) has contributed to the idea that Christians who are raised from childhood within Christian families are somehow superior to those who become new converts as adults. (This is not an element of Christianity outside of this right-wing, aberrant Covenant Theology subgroup, and within other groups, the opposite is true.) 

Also within this subculture, pro-life sentiment is played out not only by advancing alternatives to abortion and by opposing its practice, it takes the ideal a few steps further by creating an imperative for Christians to birth large numbers of children. The Great Commission refers to the instruction of Jesus to go into all the world to share the Christian faith and to make disciples who would follow Him, and traditional Christianity has interpreted this as a motivation to share their faith with others who didn't believe or know about Christ. Though the quiverfull subgroup does not oppose such missionary work, adherents view their own homes as the first and most promising place where one should begin this mission by creating more souls for God's kingdom. Unfortunately, a good many never venture out much further beyond the confines of their own homes and separatist churches.

Though adoption became vogue a few years ago when aging women in this group found themselves unable to keep “producing” large numbers of children proposed by favored anti-feminist ideologues like Mary Pride, the movement started out with a great deal of superstition concerning adoption. Some Christians believe in a concept of “generational curses,” the belief that the negative consequences from sins of an individual's forebears are inherited metaphysically, even if that individual doesn't engage in the same sin as their ancestors. Bill Gothard, an innovator in the Shepherding-Discipleship, Quiverfull, and the homeschooling movements taught parents to reject adoption because of his superstitious beliefs that demonic influences attached to a child from another family would disrupt the benefits of his own formulaic system for parents. In other words, not only did parents have to deal with the implications of their own generational curses from husband and wife in a marriage, by adopting a child from outside the union, it burdens the family with another new set of generational curses against which they would have to contend to keep their own natural children safe from demonic harm. But this belief prevailed if not dominated only during the early phase of the movement, and because the group is not monolithic in specific beliefs, adoption became increasingly more acceptable.

Some adherents may disagree, but I see the developing quiverfull group as active within the larger Christian homeschooling movement. As the system and both practices grew, many people began to venture away from a focus on the pragmatics of how to educate a child at home into the religious aspects of the ever developing quiverfull mindset. Then, the second wave of young zealots (who had taken the reigns from the aging leaders like Gary North and Bill Gothard) soon realized that their own fertility was not as robust as the high demand religious system required. People like the Duggar Family set the bar for the ideal number of children higher and higher all the time, and as this second generation of homeschoolers approached midlife, they found that they couldn't produce the numbers of children that the system guilted them into bearing. (I watched this evolution in my own shepherding and Gothard influenced church, as the ideal number of children grew from three into seven before I left.) Pragmatism eventually won out, and leaders like Nancy Campbell and Russell Moore jumped on the bandwagon.

In the next post, I will explore the adoption imperative to attain large families, an alternative and/or adjunct practice to “direct” foreign missionary work for those who follow a quiverfull mentality. I will draw on information from another new book by Kathryn Joyce that I highly recommend, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption. She answers many of the questions about problems with failed foreign adoptions that had just begun to emerge publicly at about the same time as Lydia Schatz' death.

More to come on Missionary Adoption:

Save a Soul from Evil, Pagan Africa
and Give an Orphan a Good Home
While Growing the Covenant Community!

How did this Subculture Imperative
Influence the Williams and the Schatz Families?