I read about a baby box a couple of weeks ago. A baby box, I wondered, what’s that? I’ve seen babies sleeping in laundry baskets and drawers, so my mind immediately went to images of boxes with babies in them, wooden boxes in which babies could sleep for a few weeks before graduating to the crib, and then the box would perhaps hold little treasures like the favorite stuffed animal or books with bed time stories or the parents’ growing collection of memorabilia like baby’s first photo, first hat, first pair of shoes, first drawing. Yes, that’s got to be it, I told myself. It’s a box for the treasured things we keep from a child’s first days and months of life; it’s a box we don’t take out of the closet very often, but when we do, perhaps on a birthday or one night around graduation time, we love how every small thing in the baby box is a play button for memories and stories.
The story I read, though, was about a different kind of baby box. On a Tuesday in April, they had a dedication ceremony at the Volunteer Fire Department in Woodburn, a small town in northeastern Indiana, near the Ohio state line. They dedicated Indiana’s first baby box. The Safe Haven Baby Box is a padded, climate-controlled container where moms and dads can drop off unwanted newborns anonymously. The box is installed on an exterior wall of the fire station, and is equipped with a security system that notifies emergency personnel when a baby is dropped off; they can get to the child within minutes. A second baby box was dedicated only days later in Michigan City, Indiana. The Knights of Columbus of Indiana will pay for the first 100 baby boxes, which cost $1,500 to $2,000 each, said Monica Kelsey, a volunteer with the fire department who has been advocating for baby boxes in Indiana for several years. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have safe haven laws, which allow unharmed newborns to be surrendered without fear of prosecution. Indiana’s law already allows mothers to drop off newborns at police stations, fire stations and hospitals. But Kelsey pointed out that some people want total anonymity. She spoke of a girl who called a hotline who wanted to know where a baby box was. The young mother refused to go to a hospital or fire station to drop off the baby, but eventually, thankfully, her boyfriend brought the baby to a hospital. Giving up a child is never an easy decision, and fear and shame make things even more complicated. Kelsey said, “This is not criminal; this is legal. We don’t want to push women away.” The Woodburn baby box, the first in Indiana, was installed April 19, the anniversary of when Kelsey says her birth mother abandoned her at a hospital when she was just hours old.
Baby boxes have been around in one form or another for centuries, and the earliest known examples were foundling wheels installed in the outside walls of churches and convents in medieval times. But the practice of taking in abandoned children goes back to the earliest days of the church. It was not uncommon in the ancient Roman world for parents to abandon unwanted children or sell them into slavery. Such desperate practices persist today in many parts of the world, where families crushed by poverty abandon infants and children of all ages, or sell them, knowingly or unknowingly, into the slavery of child labor or child prostitution. It appears that the first Christians made creative use of Roman adoption laws.
Rome’s leading families used adoption, much like they used marriage, to strengthen ties among the powerful elite. Families without a male heir routinely adopted boys or even grown men to make sure there wouldn’t be any fights over who would inherit the family wealth after the death of the pater familias, the father of the family. It was an honor (and in some cases the accomplishment of an ambitious young man) to be adopted by a powerful father.
Christians, however, began adopting boys and girls rather indiscriminately; they took in abandoned infants and raised them as their own. This was astonishing, because they didn’t do it to preserve family wealth, but for the children’s sake. They had heard the good news of Jesus Christ and they began to live it. They began to look at every human being, no matter their age, sex, or status, as a person destined to inherit the kingdom and the glory of God as brothers and sisters of Christ. They began to look not just at each other, but at every person, every stranger, every street urchin, every foundling as a beloved child of God for whom Christ had died.
Paul used adoption language to write about the relationship human beings have with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We did not receive a spirit that leads us back into fear, we read, back into uncertainty about our status with God, back into oppression or dependency, back into abuse or abandonment or hopelessness – we did not receive a spirit of slavery, Paul writes, but a spirit of adoption, or, more literally translated, a spirit of sonship.
Some of us cringe at those words. Yes, there are deep seated patriarchal assumptions at play in this language, assumptions that still trip us up when we speak of God as Father and Jesus as the Son as though the Gospel were giving religious legitimacy to patriarchal relations of domination and violence in families and communities.
All who are led by the Spirit of God, writes Paul, are sons of God. All have received the spirit of sonship. But Paul is not talking about sex or gender, he is talking about status. Paul uses the language of patriarchal order where the pater familias, the father of the family, holds all power; and he uses the language to undermine the patriarchal order. It’s a dangerous game and we must listen and read carefully not to hear him provide religious justification for male privilege.
All who are led by the spirit of God are sons of God. All have received the spirit of sonship. The point is that sons inherit, or more specifically, the firstborn son inherits. Only this firstborn, crucified as a criminal and risen into glory, doesn’t enter into glory to claim his inheritance and leave us behind – no, he pours the love of God into our hearts, the spirit of sonship who through us addresses God as Abba in the intimate, familial language Jesus used.
To receive the Spirit is to enter into the intimate relationship Jesus has with God and to be assured that we are all children of God. And now Paul doesn’t use the gender exclusive word sons, but children. We are children of God, he writes, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. The old order is being dismantled because this firstborn lived and died and was raised from the dead so that all children of God would inherit the kingdom and the glory. The spirit of sonship is not the spirit of Rome’s patriarchal order firmly established in law and culture, but a spirit of liberation that frees human beings from anything that would keep us from living in the freedom and glory of the children of God. It is the Spirit who inspired Christians throughout the Roman empire to adopt abandoned children or pay the debts of others to free them from prison or the galley. It is the same Spirit who inspires Christians today to fight against human trafficking or payday lending and motivates us to treat every person as a beloved child of God.
When the outpouring of the Holy Spirit began on Pentecost, people asked, “What does this mean?” And Peter said, “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel, ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’”
God is pouring out the Spirit on all flesh – male and female, young and old, even on slaves, the most oppressed who have no say – and by the Spirit they are empowered and given voice to speak divine truth. Every child of God is given authority through the Spirit to contribute prophetic teaching.
We have never fully grasped what a revolutionary moment and statement Pentecost is. Every voice matters, because the Spirit doesn’t follow our carefully constructed power arrangements, but inspires visions, dreams, and prophetic speech particularly among those we consider too old or too young or of the wrong sex or gender or class background. So the Spirit not only inspires us to speak the truth we find in our intimate relationship with God, but to listen for it in the words and the silence of all whom God has chosen to inherit the glory into which Christ has entered.
A mother placing her newborn child in a baby box is an act of despair, a silent cry for the life where we don’t abandon but embrace each other. But it is also an act of love and faith. She trusts that there is in the world a community that welcomes her child as a child of God. Perhaps there’s even a part of her hoping that she herself would not be abandoned but embraced as a child of God. I pray we are part of that community.