Theology

The original foster care story at the heart of Christmas – by Ian Butcher

This year’s John Lewis Christmas advert shows a family preparing to welcome a teenager into their home as foster carers. The foster father’s attempts to learn to skateboard are part of his preparation for the arrival of a teenager into their home.

This focus on the foster father is welcome. Approximately 40% of foster carers are male, but research shows that male foster carers are often seen in a negative light in contrast to female carers.

Negative experiences

The experience of male foster carers is that negative assumptions are often made about their ability to care for children and possibly even keep them safe. Male carers report being treated like a ‘risk to be regulated’[1] and feel that

‘the stigma of being a male foster carer runs deep… you are often portrayed as someone to fear.’[2]

Male carers also experience being seen as secondary to their female partner carers, who are assumed to be the main carers of the children. Even social work professionals admit to ‘resorting to ‘chit chat’ with the man… until the woman foster carer came along.’[3]

Joseph of Nazareth

As a foster father myself I have found it helpful to reflect on the life of Joseph of Nazareth and his care for Jesus. At this time of year, much is said about Mary, and Joseph is often assumed to be a ‘secondary carer’. But consider this:

  • Joseph had a child placed in his care when the angel told Joseph not to fear marrying Mary and what the baby’s name would be (Matthew 1.20-21)
  • Joseph was not the biological father of the child, as the wording at the end of Matthew’s genealogy makes clear (Matthew 1.16)
  • Joseph accepted the obligations of parenthood, caring for and protecting the child when under mortal threat from king Herod, and providing a family home (Matthew 2.13-23)
  • Joseph lived within the tension of there being another fundamental paternal relationship which was important for the child (Luke 2.48-49)

Mary’s song of praise upon being told she will bear God’s son is well-known. But none of Joseph’s words are recorded in the gospels, despite the role he plays throughout the narratives of Jesus’ infancy.

Character

But Matthew does give us a key insight into Joseph’s character – he was a righteous man (Matthew 1.19). Being a good Jewish man, he was committed to meeting the requirements of the law, and so knew that the law required him to separate from Mary when he discovered her pregnancy. But he was also merciful and wanted to avoid Mary being publicly disgraced.

In this, Joseph anticipated Jesus’ own words later in Matthew’s gospel, when he twice quoted Hosea’s words: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9.13, 12.7) and encouraged his followers to ensure their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5.20).

Beyond regulations

Foster carers operate in a regulated environment, but of course simple adherence to the regulations does not make a good foster carer. We must go beyond that and provide the best care we can for the children in our homes, showing mercy and seeking ‘the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6.33). This is what the John Lewis advert captures well.

2000 years ago, Joseph’s community may well have made unwarranted assumptions about his position in his family. But Joseph knew what he had been called to do, and he was open to new information and direction provided by his angelic dreams.

Essential qualities

Contemporary research observes that ‘being present, reliable, trustworthy and safe… are the male carer’s essential qualities’.[4] We need to recognise the vital contribution that these qualities make for a child. Too many children experience adults who are absent, unreliable and untrustworthy.

These are the positive qualities I want to show as well demonstrating something of the merciful righteousness of Joseph. If I do so I will feel that I have done my best as a carer for the children in our home, even if I don’t have skateboarding injuries to show for it.


Interested in providing care for children, or supporting foster carers among your friends, family or church?Check out the Home for Good website which is full of great resources.

Ian Butcher is Pastor of Catford Community Church in south London. For his MA he wrote dissertation entitled “Joseph and the Call to Care” considering how contemporary male foster carers can learn from Joseph of Nazareth. Visit his blog.


[1] Robbie Gilligan, ‘Men as Foster Carers: A Neglected Resource?’, Adoption & Fostering 24, no. 2 (July 2000): 68, https://doi.org/10.1177/030857590002400209.

[2] Karen Lewis and Maria Boffey, eds., Men Who Care: Experiences and Reflections from Male Foster Carers (The Fostering Network, 2010), 13.

[3] Gilligan, ‘Men as Foster Carers’, 68.

[4] Simon Newstone, ‘Male Foster Carers: What Do We Mean by “Role Models”?’, Adoption & Fostering 24, no. 3 (October 2000): 41, https://doi.org/10.1177/030857590002400306.

4 thoughts on “The original foster care story at the heart of Christmas – by Ian Butcher”

  1. Thanks Ian, for this thought-provoking and helpful piece. In our work with young homeless people one of our aims is giving young people a healing experience of family, and I’m so aware of the impact of a lack, or negative experience, of fathering on our residents. Birmingham university did some research and concluded the dearth of fathering in the UK should be seen as a public health issue and treated as such.

    The points you’ve highlighted about male foster carers and your reflections on Joseph are really stimulating and insightful. Similarly to you, I try to balance mercy and righteousness along with the qualities you’ve highlighted from research. The boy crisis by Warren Farrell and John Gray, also highlights issues around fathering not being a valued role in the “developed” world. I noticed that the research was you referenced was quite a long time ago – do you have any more up to date sources at all, and are they essentially saying the same thing or have things changed? Thanks again, Mark

    Like

    1. Mark, thanks for your comments, and it’s interesting to hear the overlap with work with homeless people.
      Yes, I realised that the research I’d quoted for this piece is 20+ years old, which is perhaps not helpful. In my reading I have though looked at subsequent studies among male foster carers and unfortunately the picture has not changed a great deal in the intervening time.

      Like

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