KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Sexuality, Brainwashing, and Colonialism with Kai Ngu

Sexuality, Brainwashing, and Colonialism with Kai Ngu

Season 2, Episode 7
A square image. It is a somewhat abstract Illustration in warm, bright colors of a blue and white landscape with flecks of orange. The landscape itself is undulating in about 4 waves descending from the top right to bottom left corners of the image. The sun is partially visible on the top left and the sky is blue. White, cursive lettering spells out “Shake the Dust” across the ground.

Today, we’re talking with Kai Ngu, co-founder of Church Clarity and a divinity student studying colonial and missionary historical engagement with indigenous religious traditions. We discuss their personal story of how their views changed on sexuality and theology over time, finding empathy and a way forward with family who vehemently reject their new views, what they’re learning about how Christian colonialism treated indigenous notions of gender and spirituality, and a whole lot more.

Mentioned during the episode:

-  Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood

-  The work of J. R. Daniel Kirk

-  Kai’s article on accusation’s of brainwashing

-  Sarahngu.com which has a lot of Kai’s writing and other work in one place

Shake the Dust is a podcast of KTF Press. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Find transcripts of this show and subscribe to get our newsletter and bonus episodes at KTFPress.com.


Jonathan Walton – follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Suzie Lahoud – follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Sy Hoekstra – follow him on Twitter.

Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra – listen to the whole song on Spotify.

Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam – follow her and see her other work on Instagram.

Production and editing by Sy Hoekstra.

Transcript by Joyce Ambale and Sy Hoekstra.

Questions about anything you heard on the show? Write to shakethedust@ktfpress.com and we may answer your question on a future episode.


[An acoustic guitar softly plays six notes, the first three ascending and the last three descending — F#, B, F#, E, D#, B — with a keyboard pad playing the note B in the background. Both fade out as Jonathan Walton says “This is a KTF Press podcast.”]

Kai Ngu: I think it is more threatening to them that I claim to take scripture seriously. I claim to be Christian, than if I said I don't even share the same premises you do. And I think it's more threatening for a simple reason, which is that to take us seriously, the present queer Christian seriously, means they can't just keep their faith model intact in just saying you either opt in or you opt out. To incorporate someone who has a different point of view within the body of Christ means that you have to also reevaluate your faith model. That is generally a lot more unsettling than just to say someone has rejected the whole thing altogether.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]

Jonathan Walton: Welcome to Shake the Dust: Leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God. I'm Jonathan Walton here with Suzie Lahoud and Sy Hoekstra.

Suzie Lahoud: Today we're going to be talking about queerness in church and in colonization. But before we get to that, some quick reminders. If you like what we do on this show, please go to ktfpress.com and become a subscriber. That gets you the weekly newsletter from the three of us and all of the bonus episodes of this show. It also supports our book projects, transcribing this show to keep it accessible, and everything else we do at KTF. Remember, you can always start your subscription off with a free month by going to ktfpress.com/freemonth. Please also follow us on your podcast player, leave us a rating and review and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at KTF Press. Thank you so much for your support.

Sy Hoekstra: Our guest today is Kai Ngu. Kai was born in, Sarawak, Borneo in Malaysia. When they were 10, their Chinese family moved to the United States. Kai graduated from Columbia University, lives in Brooklyn and attends Yale Divinity School where they're studying colonial and missionary historical engagement with indigenous religious traditions in Southeast Asia. Thank you so much for being here today, Kai.

Kai Ngu: Thank you for having me. I realize my claim to Brooklyn is like slightly more attenuated. I actually now live in New Haven, but I do visit most weekends [Sy laughs]. But at part I’ve been in New York now for 13 years. So

Sy Hoekstra: And right now you're actually in Malaysia [laughs].

Kai Ngu: Yeah, and right now my connection has become even more attenuated. I'm 12 hours ahead in Kuala Lumpur.

Sy Hoekstra: We will get to why you're there in a little bit, but I think we should start off just by talking about your story of how you got from the point where you grew up in a church that was really conservative on the issues of sex and gender, to where you are today. Would you mind giving us the highlights of that story?

Kai Ngu: Yeah. I think Sy you and I knew each other since college and Jonathan same. I think you all probably, so that was about, I went to college 2008 to 2012, so more than a decade ago at this point. I think most people who've known me since then have known that this is a big question I've been thinking about for many years really, since high school. And I think to try to distill the fundamental tension I was grappling with. I grew up as someone who took my faith very seriously. It was not the primary thing in my life, but at the same time I had the sense that something was not quite right in the ways in which the way scripture and God was portrayed to me with regards to queer people.

That wasn't just about my particular experiences with being in quote-unquote” queer relationships”. But I think it was also just kind of observing queer communities and life within queer communities and seeing that in general, I think, that when people have come out or embrace themselves in some way or accept themselves in some way, there tends to be more of the fruits of the spirit, arguably. More joy, more peace more patience in some cases. Some of the most saint like people, I would argue, I've known are people who are queer, who have had to come to forgive their parents and go through the whole journey. It seemed to me that, I think for me initially it was, I was grappling with sexuality, the experience of falling in love with someone. Being loved by someone else taught me a lot about the gospel, taught me a lot about grace and was like a motivating thing to try to be a better person, arguably, sanctification. So it just kind of felt like, well, I think throughout the whole time I was like, okay, but scripture seems to indicate there's something like special about the male-female union that somehow I'm missing in this current thing. What is this magic sauce that I don't quite get? And if you're Catholic, I think it's clear what the answer is, but if you're not, you don't quite take the whole sex must be for reproduction angle. It's just like, you're just left with a lot of questions.

Like complementarianism. Like men are somehow this, women are this and somehow they've formed to create this special thing that other people can't. The argument starts to break down. I basically felt by the time I left college, that my theology felt like a sieve, as in like a metal sieve we used to filter out things, in the sense that it felt like it was very internally consistent, that there was kind of a metallic logic to it, but it was very porous. It couldn't hold the weight of the experiences I was having, experiences I saw in the lives of my queer friends. I think also more to the point, it always felt to me that the heart of the gospel is that we are unconditionally loved without merit in some ways, and that applies across the board.

There’s nothing you can do to earn or dis-earn it. It's a both very humbling thing and an empowering thing at the same time. I think I always struggle to figure out how this fit with the heart of the gospel. How an anti-LGBT stance fit within that. Often at times, I feel like queer people like myself are called to explain our position, but sometimes I feel like it really should be the reverse. People should have to explain why exactly that position fits within what at least I take to be the heart of this whole gospel Jesus thing. For me, the key part of kind of what broke things open theologically for me, in terms of being like, “Oh, I can see how I can take scripture seriously and my faith tradition seriously, and also possibly embrace my queerness,” was just realizing that scripture itself presented potentially more liberatory paradigms to interpret what we consider as scripture that we applied to it.

I know Sy and Jonathan, you have read some of the blog posts I've written on this, but looking at the decision to incorporate the gentiles into the Jewish covenant around the time of the early church, I think I would argue, and some of the texts I would point people to would be Disarming Violence [Kai meant to say Disarming Scripture], as well as some blog posts by this author named JRD Kirk or Daniel Kirk, who wrote a bunch about this. Those are the articles I found most convincing, which is that there’s precedent in scripture to seriously evaluate what you think to be the core tenets of your ethical moral code, your identity code, if you feel like the Holy Spirit is moving in ways in the lives of people that you did not expect.

So you notice with the early church, a eunuch is baptized really the first time a gentile is baptized, and the Centurion is baptized. Only after that does the early church be like, okay, we need to consult the scriptures and figure out how this fits in. They didn't pause and say, “We can’t baptize you, we need to do a little scripture study or counsel, and then we can go back and figure out who we can baptize.” It was like all right, clearly, God's asking you to be baptized, so we're going to do that and we're going to figure out how to make it work kind of post facto. I feel that kind of epistemological framework, I think, honestly, I think should be like what we apply, not just with queer stuff, but just in general to take the movement of the spirit as seriously, or as a way to lead how we then interpret scripture, because the truth is none of us interpret scripture from a neutral perspective.

So if you're going to pick a perspective, I think it would be a good one to pick  —where a perspective in which you are open to what I think are where the fruits of the spirit are being evidentiary — That word — are being revealed, so to speak.

Sy Hoekstra: I appreciate a couple things about that. One, is your, the tool that you've come to see is important, which is actually using your experience, not as something to just be bludgeoned out of existence by scripture and doctrine, but as a tool, as part of the — acknowledging your interpretation comes from those experiences and saying, “Okay, what can I learn from the world as I experience it?” Which is in some ways, actually, a very traditional way of looking at scripture, but it’s something that I think especially in the churches that you and I, and that a lot of probably our audience grew up in have done away with.

Kai Ngu: Yep. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

Sy Hoekstra: The Wesleyan Quadrilateral? I don't know this one [laughs].

Kai Ngu: Oh, I don’t know. If your Methodist, I think you use it a bit more. It's like scripture, tradition, reason, experience are the four corners.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, oh right, exactly. I have heard that before. I didn't know that's what it was called. The only quadrilateral I of course have ever heard of, is the evangelical one. I forget the guy's name [laughs]. The other thing though that you said very briefly, was that you spent some time trying to work out how to fit your experience into traditional theology. I just want to highlight that that was an understatement. You spent years [laughter] trying to study hard in a lot of different places. I do want to underline the fact that… this doesn't necessarily have to be everyone's path, but you in particular were extremely thoroughgoing about your attempt to understand things as they were taught to you. I don't know. I think that's important to your story, not necessarily everybody's but yeah.

Jonathan Walton: Three things, I want to say, thank you so much for being here. Second thing is, I agree. I just want to reiterate with Sy. I think something that really bothers me about conversations like this is the assumption, is that the person that you disagree with has not done the work, or there's like, we come into a lot of conversations thinking the other person must not be as smart or as learned or as studied as much as I have. I just think that's a fundamentally unhelpful way of engaging whatever the conversation is. I feel like if there was a way to break that posture in the church, it would be really helpful. The third thing is when you're, I think, I don't remember which article it was, but your work around context and engaging with the experience stuff, is I think super important and super helpful.

So you wrote an article a few months ago back on people who disagree on theology or politics accusing each other of being brainwashed. You wrote about coming to grips with the idea that our intellectual views are partially shaped by the people or institutions around us and applying that realization to your disagreements like with your parents over your queerness. So we talk about context and stuff in this big picture, but then you made it super personal in how you did that with your parents. Could you walk us through your thoughts on that? I know that's a big question with a lot of pins, but I think it'd be really helpful if you could.

Kai Ngu: Yeah, I'd be happy to, and thanks for giving me some credit over those 10 years. Although I feel like I really envy people for whom it's just like a gut intuition: Obviously God created me, I'm queer. God's good with me. Truly, that would be…

Sy Hoekstra: That would've been easier, yes.

Kai Ngu: That ability to tap into your intuition and the Holy Spirit, I think in some ways, my process, although it is what it is, I think reflects sometimes my, a sort of habit I’ve developed about needing to kind of write a long FAQ, a long treatise before I feel I can trust my judgment and gut. Anyhow, some bad consequences of that. The article I wrote, so shortly after I kind of came to the conclusion that actually there were some possibilities for scripture to embrace queer people fully into the church, meaning they can get married, be ordained, et cetera. I decided, okay, next step is coming out to my parents and that kind of commenced. That was about 2016, right around Trump's election. It commenced like a very bitter theological war.

Was like really get into like 15th century, well, just warfare in Europe. Bloody, almost verbally bloody battles of Genesis one, Genesis two, the whole shebang. Kind of in the settling of the dust over that, I started reflecting more about what was the most hurtful things that were said to me and why they felt hurtful and also doing some critical introspection. I think for me, the most hurtful things at that point in time that were said were accusations that really I was just kind of giving into my desire, so to speak, that this was not something that I had thought a lot about and done a lot of research as you all indicated, but that was just me giving into maybe peer pressure, because I moved to Brooklyn, or going to a progressive church.

I went and still am a part of Forefront Brooklyn Church. It’s a great progressive, non-denominational church. I think that there was a way in which I felt that they weren't taking the weight of my quote-unquote “rational argument” seriously, and they were accusing me of being brainwashed by liberal peers, by Columbia University, what have you. I started thinking about why that was harmful to me, but also firstly, why they said that. I think, and I started noticing, like I said, this is around Trump election, a lot of people generally accusing the other political side of being brainwashed, too much Fox News or too much MSNBC or social media’s creating fake news vortexes.

So it just felt like my micro dynamic with my parents were being played out macro-ly, on a national scale. Really, also my parents voted for Trump, so it's like it brings a whole other level to it. I can get into that some other time, but actually I think I met with you Jonathan, the day after the election, I think. We got lunch. So that brings things full circle in some way. I realize that part of the charge of brainwashing is a couple of things. Obviously, it makes it easier not to interrogate your own reasons or maybe you also aren't the most rational person, not just like the other side hasn't thought through things or hasn't done the work as you were saying, Jonathan.

But I think particularly when it happens to someone very close to you, like a family member or loved one, and they radically change in ways that, because I had a much more conservative position, radically change. I think the accusation of brainwashing also helps cope with grief. It’s a way of saying, clinging onto the person you thought you knew, and saying, “That person I thought I knew is still there.” Some outside third-party, foreign influence has come in and changed the daughter I loved or something like that. It's a way of externalizing blame. I've been reflecting on that, I was like, okay, I could see how this is part of the grieving process in a way. But if I want them to take my arguments seriously, I have to also reply how I want them to treat me to how I treat them.

Or maybe I need to step back and think about why it is that that charge stings. I think the truth is, if I'm really honest about it, is that, although I have some good arguments for why I have my position and stuff like that, there are also arguably non-rational factors that led to my set of conclusions and set of commitments that have to do with experiences, as I've mentioned. I think a very pivotal experience for me was going to, in 2016, around January, a queer Christian conference called QCF, or GCN at the time, where I was with like 800 to 900 LGBTQ Christians who spoke the same evangelical language I grew up with, like a lot of Jesus, a lot of Bible, people speaking tongues, raising their hands. Pretty multiracial, pretty diverse in their worship style.

And to see that for the most part, a lot of them were pretty open and affirming of their sexuality or gender was very powerful to me. That did not introduce any new arguments so to speak, but that shaped who I was. So I think that article was kind of my way of both acknowledging that at the end of the day, we are not fully rational beings. In fact, we are mostly I think not rational, and that we're shaped with all these experiences. And I think the sooner we can concede that on both sides, that there are biases that everyone's incentivized and motivated or biased in some way or another, maybe the better we can have more compassionate conversations. So I wrote the article really for myself and my parents, but hopefully it's relevant for other people as well.

Sy Hoekstra: I think the way you ended it was that you have made some attempt with your parents to explicitly make that some of the basis of your conversation, is that right, that whole framework that you just presented?

Kai Ngu: I think for what it is, we have gotten to a point where we've stopped arguing about theology and we just tried to deal. I think they've moved from denial to acceptance around the fact that I'm probably not going to change anytime soon. So if they want to have a relationship with me, the reality is they have to also accept people I date or other things about me. I think that that way of recognizing the person before you and not the person you once knew — that was honestly not super honest in some ways and not super authentic — and dealing with the reality in front of you is ultimately the pivot they I think have made for the most part.

Suzie Lahoud: Kai, just to pivot a little bit, you were a co-founder of Church Clarity. Could you talk to us about what inspired that organization and what it's all about?

Kai Ngu: Yeah. So the team of us got together, a guy named George, and Tim, early in the summer of, I want to say 2018, mostly in response to progressively packaged, but ultimately misleading hipster churches. The kind of churches that would have pastors with skinny jeans and tattoos and flashy lights and a very contemporary style of service that seemed to indicate like Justin Bieber goes there, like celebs, indicate that they’re sort of like “with it.” I think with that, people assume that these churches are also with it in other ways, other social morals and norms, particularly around women leadership or standing of queer people in the church. But you can't find like a single belief statement anywhere.

The only time you’ll find it is once you get into the ranks high enough and you try to be a member, you try to lead or volunteer. Like, “oh, actually we have this you have to sign.” And it's sort of hush hush and stuff like that. So I think the foundation of it, the person who came up with the idea, his name is George Mekhail, was like, he was inspired in some ways by Intervarsity’s organizational clarity to say this is where we stand as an organization, everyone should know and just get with it or not. He was like, even though, obviously that has caused some harm, maybe in the long run, that's better than being misleading.

Because I think ultimately when you're not clear, you are being patronizing. As in, you do not think that people have the ability or agency to make decisions with full information and that you beguile them into it or ease them into it or trick them into it. Which honestly is the premise of a lot of, I think conversion, evangelistic tactics. It's like pizza night — surprise, it's Jesus night. It's like…

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah, the bait and switch.

Kai Ngu: The bait and switch. It's like that mentality, it’s like this embarrassment about your beliefs, packaged with a desire to stand by them, leads to these weird marketing thing. That we felt was doing more harm than good because people will invest all this time in the church and then leave. So we started this database called Churchclarity.com, that I've since stepped down from, I just serve in an advisory capacity. But we have a group of volunteers that review crowdsourced submissions of church websites, and we have a criteria and methodology by which we score the website for how clearly it communicates. So how easy it is to find statements of beliefs or policies on women in leadership and queer people in the church.

And we give it a clear, unclear score as well as a egalitarian or non-egalitarian, affirming, non-affirming, or undisclosed, like you truly don't know. That's kind of the heart of the mission, and we've realized it's been helpful also for mainline denominations. We can get to that some time, not just evangelical ones. We've kind of steered clear of non-protestant churches. I think Catholic or Orthodox churches have, it's a separate, this is not quite the problem they have. So that's at the heart of it. Honestly that I do still quite believe in that mission, even if I'm no longer formally a part of it, which is why it was important for me to get clarity of where you all stood with the issue of LGBT people before I agreed to do the interview. Have you all ever said that publicly, I guess, in a podcast format, like this is where we stand right now?

Sy Hoekstra: I think what we had actually talked about doing was before this episode, doing that basically. We will have done that by the time this comes out.

Kai Ngu: Okay, great. I wasn’t going to force you all to do it, but I was going to ask you all to do it. So I'm glad you all.

Sy Hoekstra: Well, I appreciate that, A, I appreciate that you're consistent with what you do [laughter], and you'll do it wherever you go. I think that's something that forces integrity on people in a way that I think is helpful. Yeah, we will have done that by now, and we appreciate the push.

Jonathan Walton: The question that I have is, I'm wondering if there are maybe two or three ways that you see colonization impacting how we see our sexuality and see the sexuality of others, and specifically how our faith informs that, or mis-informs that, without giving a preview to your dissertation and thesis in your book which will be coming out in a couple of years.

Or you could if you wanted to do that…


Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, I was gonna say…

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah, we’d love to get that scoop.

Jonathan Walton: I know, right?

Kai Ngu: No, someone else will have to write it. I can only tackle a very small piece of it. Maybe one day when I'm 50. But yeah, in some ways it's very hard to disentangle Christianity from colonization because they're cooked in the same cauldron or come from the same people. It's really not a question of if, but how. I think the crux of it is that around the early modern century, so we’re talking about 14th to 16th centuries in Europe, we see this kind of confluence and convergence of a bunch of hierarchies, both based on race, gender, and sexuality. So where the European white man is seen as at the very top because he's rational, he's in control of his desires and he's acting upon desires in a rational way.

Sex has to be for reproduction, that's like a rational way of using it. You're not giving in to your desires, and it's masculine. It's you're in control. It's virtuous. So I don't think it's quite a coincidence that you have an uptick of persecution against women as witches, uptick of hanging of people accused of sodomy around the time also that you have Europeans going into many parts of the world and saying these people are uncivilized and barbaric for a number of reasons. Sometimes they point to the lack of written documents. So these people are illiterate, they cannot read. Maybe they have a rich oral history, what have you. Or these people are worshiping the devil because they have all these idols, a sign of their barbarism.

One of the things they would point out as a sign of the barbaric nature of these people that they are trying to justify the colonization of in a condescending way, saying that we have to steward these people into full maturity so they can go into the full maturity of Christ, so to speak, is looking at their gender and sexual behaviors. I'm going to read out some quotes. This is from a catechism recorded at 1585 from, Spanish, Catholic catechism somewhere, I forget where in what is now Latin America. But, so this catechism is what is being taught, right? So it’s a list of sins and why it’s a sin, and then quote, “above all these sins, is a sin we call nefarious and sodomy, which is for man to sin with man, or with women, not in the natural way.”

So sodomy is any kind of sex that's not natural. Oral sex might count between a man and a woman. It has to be for the purpose of reproduction. Even above all these, to sin with beast, so bestiality is also included under sodomy. “… Let it be known that the reason why God has allowed you, the Indians, should be so afflicted and vexed by other nations, because of this vice sodomy that your ancestor had, and many among you still have.” So they're connecting the story of the destruction of the city of Sodom, to the destruction of these indigenous civilizations and saying, your sodomitic practices are what is leading, part of what’s leading, to the destruction of your city, just like the Sodom was destroyed in the Bible.

I don't have time to go into why the interpretation of Lott and Sodom is great, and I think most even conservative people will concede probably that's more a story about hospitality than about sodomy. But we see this rationale being put out. So that's in Latin America, and you fast forward… Not fast forward, we just move continents around the same time period to the Philippines and Southeast Asia, a context I know a little bit better. And you have I think Francis de Alcina writing in the 1600s, so just a few decades later, about these devil-worshiping priestesses and how they're kind of crazy.

Then he says, quote, “The devil also chose some effeminate men that they called Asog in ancient times.” It says, “These were impotent men and deficient for the practice of matrimony.” So the missionaries are seeing the devil in everything. Are seeing the devil behind anything that is seen as pagan, but also anything that is seen as effeminate. I think there's this quote from a 1486 handbook on witchcraft that talks about why the feminine is seen as more susceptible to the devil. Quote, “The etymology of the word femina comes from Fe (which means faith) and Minus (which is less than) since she is by ever weaker to hold and preserve the faith … Therefore a wicked woman is by her nature quicker to abjure the faith, which is the root of witchcraft.” You see this connection between effeminacy, devil, susceptibility to the devil. And that anyone who's adjacent to feminacy, the Europeans come across so, so many in Africa, in the Americas and Southeast Asia and Pacific islands, of people who they describe as men in women's clothes holding ritualistic and religious power. They see this as ultimately, why would anyone choose to be like a woman? Clearly, they must be possessed by the devil because also effeminacy is linked to it. Anyhow, so that's a big part of the puzzle I think, that we have to kind of untangle when we think about the role of the church and the state.

And it's much more complicated than that. I think there's something to be said about how the medieval church was a lot more, I would say gender expansive and fluid, but I think the Catholic church feels it needs to tighten up its roster and become much more Orthodox when Protestants come around and start accusing the church, Catholic church of decadence or effeminacy, of like this ornate burlesque shows and the church has to be like, oh God, we have to step up our game and they start eliminating a lot of female saints, for instance. Partly because, not intentionally, but because they are trying to create more stricter, scientific criteria by which someone can become a saint.

So through that logic, a lot of village folklore, so to speak, anything that's seen as pagan or pre-Christian gets eliminated out and women tend to hold a lot of knowledge around herblore and stuff like that that is seen as not Christian. All these things are super, I think integrated, interconnected. I can talk more about Malaysia and Southeast Asia specifically, but that's like a big piece of the puzzle.

Sy Hoekstra: Please do talk more about Malaysia specifically.

Kai Ngu: Yeah. My context is more, I'm looking more at 20th century stuff. The missionaries at this point in time are a little bit more hip and they're like, we need to come through and help the poor, we need to start schools. We need to do these things. It's very much tied in, seeing their role as being part of the economic, socioeconomic development of countries. It's essentially I would argue neo-colonial, you're still helping these backwards people develop. Now you're kind of helping them develop by learning English or introducing modern quote-unquote “medicine”. I'm not going to argue against the demerits of learning English and taking antibiotics.

But what we see also, is the missionaries come and say, you should for instance stop believing all these superstitious stuff about, you can't cut down those trees because you believe that spirits live in them. There's only one God, there's not a bunch of spirits around you're afraid of offending. That's the most generous read. Missionaries also come and It’s like, you should stop, you should plant cash crops and you should do all this stuff that essentially changes people's economic arrangements from subsistence to cash based economy, which creates all kinds of issues. Missionaries also do other things to like, working in the government to keep populations more sedentary so they can build parishes around them.

Anyhow, but part of this clearing away of superstition is, one unintended consequence is, is more environmental destruction. Because in the absence of seeing nature and trees as sacred, such a capitalist values kind of kick in, and people are like, okay, I can cut all these trees and make more money and make timber out of it. There isn't a replacement theology, so to speak, that says actually, maybe nature is, you know there's tons of eco theology that are Christian I don’t have to get into it. And so what you start seeing is that groves that used to be protected and sacred start to be decimated, and that creates erosion by the rivers and prevents, and things that prevent mudslides during big storms start to become bigger and bigger.

They've been really affecting the part of Malaysia that I spent some of my early childhood and I'm hoping to build deeper relationship with east Borneo or east Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. For me, I came into this question thinking a lot more gender and sexuality, but I realized I really need to take the environment a lot more seriously too, because so much indigenous religions is about seeing and respecting plants and animals as spiritual forces as well. So I think that arguably has some pros and cons, you don't want to live your life scared of a bird singing a certain song and that makes you have to stop work because now it's a bad omen. But I think also the loss of belief in nature as a sacred force to begin with has led to some really bad practical consequences for people's livelihoods. I think Christians have to grapple with them.

Sy Hoekstra: The idea of changing people's agricultural life so that you can put up a church and make a parish, to me is so kind of like, distills a lot of ideas into one. Like you're creating this system where you're coming in and trying to get people more into working in market economy and trying to move them away from any indigenous practice, whether it's religion or just medical or whatever.

Kai Ngu: Totally.

Sy Hoekstra: And literally consolidating your own power. Like over the material and spiritual condition of people, and all of that coalesces in and is symbolized by the construction of a church to Jesus. It's horrible.

Kai Ngu: Yeah, and I didn't elaborate on this point, but it is definitely worth spending a beat more on it. Essentially, the colonial administrators are very frustrated by indigenous farming practices because it's sort of a slash and burn, and you rotate where you plant every seven years, more or less. So you leave land fallow for a while, wait for it to die and come back to life. For a variety of reasons, obviously like sustainability, but also they have some spiritual beliefs behind it. So that's very frustrating to colonial administrators because they cannot keep track of their population. It's like the borders keep shifting. And then these priests come and they build a parish and then the whole village disappears in seven years.

So they're like, this is not working. We can't build an empire, we can't build institutions that are mobile all the time. So they convince and persuade out of a variety of reasons indigenous peoples to switch the way they do agriculture to do more cash crop, which is more sedentary and really kind of ruins the land because you don't give it a break and you work it to the ground for decades. It seems like a fairly innocuous thing, so to speak, you're just shifting how people farm, but it has these huge implications. And there's this interesting letter between… and it might be seen as like, oh, that's just agriculture, how is that a religious disruption? But how people farm and work and live is their religion for a lot of indigenous religions.

It's like you, there is no church you go to. You call in the priestess, the priest, your equivalent of that when harvest begins to give a blessing. And the agricultural rhythms of life is integrated with religious rhythms of life. So when you disrupt agriculture, you also disrupt religious rhythm and you disrupt also the ways in which people are used to interacting with one another. This is a letter written by this bishop in Sabah. It's like, why are all the good men not Christians? It's like we end up getting the converts who are selfish and individualistic, and they’re okay with leaving their village and just farming on their own and screw everyone else, because also that mode of farming was very interdependent and communal.

Anyhow. So he begins with this dialogue with this indigenous native man who says, “I respect your religion, I almost converted at one point, but I can't really let my village down.” Like if I just want to go farm on my own and do my own thing, I can’t. This is the way of life for us. This is the way of working. This is how we help one another. So I think that's something we have to pay attention to. I don't think it's quite a coincidence as well that, the reason why I got into this in the first place, I forgot to mention, is that the priest and priestesses so to speak who hold these religious roles, tend to also be historically and regionally people who engage in some level of gender fluidity or gender play.

I'm interested in figuring out as the missionaries come, the ecological consequences have been somewhat traced out, but I'm trying to understand the consequences for gender and sexuality too. What happens when you have a system that is led by women or effeminate people, and it's replaced by a religious system that's led by men. What are the kind of consequences that has for how gender works in a religious context? That's a bit more my angle, but the environment stuff is very important to figure into all of this. I can talk a little bit more why I think there's a connection, but I'm still not very sure.

Suzie Lahoud: One, I just want to say thank you for the way that you, I just love the way that you show how these conversations are all interconnected. So we're also doing violence to the conversation when we try to silo off these issues, like we're going to talk about queerness now. We're going to talk about how we relate to the environment. We're going to talk about women's roles. And when really all of this is interconnected and needs to be interconnected. And I think that a lot of justice work that's going on today acknowledges that, and the church has been so far behind that conversation in a way that just is so tragic, but to kind of steer things again in a slightly different direction, and maybe go back to your personal experience, Kai.

Something I've been kind of thinking about and reflecting on when it comes to conversations around queerness in the church, is that to put it quite frankly, I find it to be so distressing that Christians who I think are engaging in homophobic narratives without maybe wanting to call it that, or label it as such, I think would actually rather see that folks who identify as queer didn't also identify as Christian. Didn't also claim to have a relationship with Christ, to have a valid living faith. That that feels like more of a threat to them than almost anything else. I think that that also trickles down to folks in the church who are affirming of queer Christians.

So I just wanted to kind of I guess maybe hear your thoughts on that, because again, I find it to be so hypocritical, particularly in a lot of what we talk about on this show, is the white evangelical church in America and folks who claim to be most passionate about seeing people come to a living faith with Christ and coming to a place of community in the body of Christ, and yet again, would rather see… I just feel like it relates to this assimilating force that you've been talking about, that there has to be this assimilation that must take place in order for that to happen. And folks who will not assimilate in the way that Christians see as being necessary are more of a threat than anything else.

So yeah, if you could just kind of speak to that, I don't know if that's something that you've encountered or think about. But yeah, if I could just kind of throw that at you, and realizing that it takes more for you to have to talk about this than for me to have to talk about this, so appreciating your kind of being willing to enter into that conversation, but yeah, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Kai Ngu: Yeah. I think to be honest, I think queer people also are sometimes guilty, I would argue, of the same type of charge, which is that religion and queerness cannot mix. Some of the most vehement advocates for that position are queer people themselves, because it's almost like to acknowledge that would be to deny the pain they’ve experienced at the hands of the church. But that's another conversation. When it comes to this specific subtype, I guess you're talking about people who are supposedly passionate about bringing people in church, yet at the same time, seem to balk at the prospect of a queer Christian more than a queer atheist,

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah.

Kai Ngu: Or find that more unsettling. I often think of that also in relation to my parents, in the sense that I think it is more threatening to them that I claim to take scripture seriously, that I claim to be Christian than if I said I don't even share the same premises you do. It’s like you can't even have a conversation then. My younger sibling is probably more secular than I am and they do not engage in the same theological debates with my parents because the premises are just not workable. And I think it's more threatening for a simple reason, which is that, to take us seriously, the present queer Christian seriously, means too that they have, they can't just keep their faith model intact.

And just saying, you're either opt in or you opt out. And you opt out, you’re an atheist so to speak. To incorporate someone who has a different point of view within the body of Christ, means that you have to also reevaluate your faith model and say, okay, maybe there's some things I need to rethink about maybe how I read scripture or how I think about church authority, let's say. So I have to challenge my own set of beliefs or challenge my own presuppositions, and that is generally a lot more unsettling than just to say someone has rejected the whole thing altogether. Sorry, just like one last comment, I did really like also Suzie how you used the word assimilation, because I think the parallels with race are important.

Because I do think there are, I would argue, like queer assimilationists who essentially want the same model of faith, they just want to be accepted within it. And I take a more radical approach and say, maybe I think what queer people have to offer is liberatory for everyone, but it does mean rethinking everything in some way, which is scarier. But unfortunately I just, I don't know, I like to be consistent.

Sy Hoekstra: We've kept you a little bit longer than I told you we would. So just before we go, where can people find you on the internet?

Kai Ngu: I guess people can find me, I have a website. I recently started going by Kai, so everything's in my English name. My website, I don't know what it has on there. Just like stuff I've written or talked about in the past. So just like a one, it's like a resume, essentially. Sarahngu.com. That's also all my social media handles, SarahNgu, which is spelled S-A-R-A-H N-G-U.

Sy Hoekstra: Awesome. Kai, thank you so much for being here today with us.

Kai Ngu: Thank you for having me.

Sy Hoekstra: Before we go, real quick, a reminder to check out ktfpress.com. Consider subscribing. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at KTF Press, follow this podcast in your player, give us a rating and review. All that is so helpful if you appreciate what we do here. Please do consider doing any or all of that. Our theme song as always is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra. Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam, and we will see you all in a couple of weeks.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]

Sy Hoekstra: Our theme song as always sendenzis … Hmm. Okay, gonna say that again.

KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Seeking Jesus, confronting injustice–Shake the Dust features candid interviews and informed discussions that guide us as we resist the idols of America.