Decolonizing Christianity (sermon)
Hi everyone I’m Sarah Ngu and I’m a deacon at forefront. I handle FF’s social media accounts and I help run with grace and D our lgbtq ministry, queer communion, and I’m a very proud member of our Brooklyn heights small group.
So, I’m going to tell you a bit about my family. Here’s a photo of my siblings and I in Malaysia. We’re Chinese-Malaysian, and we moved to the United States when i was ten years old for a bit of an unusual reason: My dad was sent by his church denomination to start a church here. Our denomination was founded by a Thai man, and so most of our churches were in Asia and we wanted to expand around the world. America, to be honest, also seemed to us like a modern-day Sodom & Gomorrah: full of sex, drugs, violence and gun ownership.
Here’s a photo of my family a year after we moved to California. As you can see that, in addition to the fact that I look basically about the same age now as I do then, we have several trophies. Those were all from softball. My dad was very eager for all of us to play softball / baseball, because he wanted us to play American sports. My dad wanted us all to become Americanized, partly because as a pastor he wanted to reach white Americans.
Track and soccer were never encouraged because my dad saw those as Malaysian sports. He wanted us to mingle with the whites. My sisters discovered only after years of softball that they preferred soccer and track (one of my sisters was recruited to run for college)—I was the only one, what a surprise, who really enjoyed softball.
My dad is also quite good at languages and I remember he would listen to the radio and practice rehearsing whatever he heard in order to sound American. We kids all grew up speaking English but we had Malaysian accents, which I remember trying to get rid of, because if you talk with Malaysian accent, people will not think you are very smart. If you talk with a British or Australian accent, okay lah. But with a Malaysian accent, it’s going to be a pro-blem.
But the thing that I remember most from my dad’s lessons in Americanese was that he would always say, “Don’t be intimidated like an Asian. Speak up and be assertive like my white colleagues.”
Now, my dad is a fighter; he loves public speaking, he’s very charismatic, so on one level he was just rebelling against the stereotype of submissive Asians. And I get that he was just trying to help us adapt and give us practical tips.
But note that he did not say, “Americans talk in more direct and assertive ways, and even though that’s not our public communication style, that’s what we have to do to be taken seriously here.”
He said, in contrast, “Don’t be intimidated like other Asians. Stand up for yourself like white people do.”
The former is about how to hustle here in America; the latter is... about shame of your culture. It's about internalizing white supremacy.
When we talk about white supremacy we tend to think of the KKK, Charlottesville. But no one talks about how white supremacy can be to use the ancient language of the bible, like a ghost, a demon, that gets under your skin into your psyche and start to possess you. If you’ve seen the movie Get Out, you’ll know what I mean.
You see, my dad and mom grew up right around the eve of Malaysia’s independence from British rule. They grew up in a country that was still, and is still, trying to overcome more than a hundred years of a legal, political and cultural system that put white people at the top, a system that did introduce modern education and technology but that also took my country’s natural resources and used it to rebuild their country especially after WWII.
But perhaps one of the most insidious effects of colonialism and imperialism globally that still lingers on today is the feeling that white people are superior. More capable. More civilized. You can still see that legacy in how most of the models in fashion ads in Asia are white or Asian people with more “white features” partly due to plastic surgery, in salary disparities between white “expats” and everyone else, and so on.
I’m not making any personal accusations of anyone in this room, I’m just saying this is the system we live in. And when I say “white people” I’m not referring to certain biological features. If you look at the history of race, we really only started identifying people by their skin color and organizing them into hierarchies around the late 1600s with the advent of colonialism and Atlantic slave trade. So when I say whiteness, I’m using it as a shorthand for “dominant group,” but which group is dominant is something that changes over history. This will be particularly relevant later on when we get into scripture.
So when my dad’s mom wanted to send my dad to the best university, it’s not too surprising that she sent him to an English boarding school. When he got there, his English wasn’t the best. So his classmates mocked his pronunciation. One of the guys would tease him and say, “Could you pass the sugar please?” I mean, if you think about it why would s-u-g-a-r is pronounced “shu-gar”? My dad at the time could speak three languages - 福州话，客家话，普通话，- and his classmates only one, but he was the one who was made to feel inferior.
When you’re excluded from the dominant group, you have two options: You can either withdraw and hang out with your own kind, or you can try your best to assimilate and be accepted by the dominant group. My dad chose the latter option. To this day, he is proud of the fact that he didn’t join International Christian Students Club with all the Asians, he joined Christian Union which was where the white students were -- he was quite popular in fact and became secretary at one point.
It’s sad to me that although my dad grew up in an era in which British colonialism was formally over, he was still embedded in a kind of colonial Christianity.
Look, I don’t want to diminish the agency and choice that we people of color have made to choose this faith because we are compelled by its fundamental story. But it gets hard sometimes. Honestly it’s hard to hold onto this faith when it’s been transmitted to you by the people who have colonized you, enslaved you, and you look around and you see the books my dad has to read for seminary and how most of them are written by white men, and when I look at the top 100 largest churches in America and how 93% of them are led by white pastors and only 1 of them is led by a female co-pastor, and when I look at whose books and podcasts are being published and circulated, who’s getting the speaking engagements and conference invites — I mean my church in Asia raised kids on Focus on the Family and exclusively sang songs from a white Australian band named hillsong — when I look at all of this I can’t help but think that not much has changed since colonialism. The legal structure may not exist, but the culture of colonial Christianity still remains.
So why am I still here?
Let’s get into Scripture. Let’s look Paul’s letter to Titus, his friend and mentee. In this letter, which is in the bible, he gives Titus a whole list of instructions for how to really set up and grow the Christian community in a Greek island called Crete. He tells him what kind of elders to appoint, the ways families should be structured and behave, and towards the end, he inserts this statement which reminds me of what my dads advice to ud:
”Declare these things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one look down on you.” (Titus 2:15, NRSV)
Now why would Paul say that? Maybe Titus has some confidence issues, and people around him are kinda arrogant. I’m sure that’s all part of it.
You know if Titus was in a small group he might say, “Hey guys can you pray for me I have this big presentation I have to make and big decisions, and I’m feeling a little nervous if people will listen to me.”
And everyone would be like, “Yeah we’ll pray for you. You got this.”
But hold up. Is Titus feeling insecure because he’s Titus, or are there some larger forces going on here?
Let’s figure this out.
So we see Titus appear again in a book in the bible called Galatians, where Paul is talking about his trip to Jerusalem and he is talking about how there is this faction of Jews who are trying to get all these Gentile converts to the faith to be circumcised. And Paul writes this:
“But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.”
Ah, so we see that Titus is Greek, meaning he is a Gentile, which is a word for someone who is not Jewish.
Why does that matter? Well if we go back to the book of Acts, we read about this tension and power dynamic between Gentiles and Jews in the early church, in which Jews had the upper hand.
By the way recall what I said about whiteness being shorthand for dominance. Obviously throughout history different groups of people have been more dominant than others. And In this context, our bible tells us that it was the Jewish people.
And what I’m going to narrate is going to portray Jewish people in a negative light; I’m just restating whatever the text in our Scriptures states. I don’t really want us to be caught up in questions of whether it was really and historically true that Jewish people at that time acted that way, and whether Paul had an agenda; we have to be super mindful of the fact that the verses I’m going to recite have been used to villainize and persecute Jewish people, and force them to assimilate and to convert.
What I want us to take away from the text are deeper truths that I think Paul is trying to convey about what it means to be a diverse community and what it means to hold power.
With that really important frame, let’s get into it.
So I mentioned this tension between gentiles and jews in the early church. If we go to the book of Acts chapter 15, this tension really comes to a head. Because there are a fair number of Jews who were saying, “Ok we get it that God is now opening up our covenant with God to include Gentiles because God’s given them the Holy Spirit and we see the Spirit evident in their lives. But if they’re coming into our country -- I mean, our covenant -- they gotta assimilate. They’ve got to get circumcised and follow law of Moses.”
Why was circumcision such a big deal? You really see this debate about it all throughout the NT. It was, and still kinda is, the marker of identity for Jews. It was commanded by God; God, as portrayed, in the book of Exodus was about to kill Moses’ son because he wasn’t circumcised. If you’re not circumcised, you’re not part of the covenant. (Of course if you are a cis woman, I guess you’re off the hook since no one seems to really care).
As an aside, as immigrant, it’s really interesting to me that so many of the key flashpoints between Gentiles and Jews are physical: They are about what you eat, how your body is formed, etc. Because so many of the transitions that immigrants have to go through are also physical: Its about your accent, what you eat, what clothes you wear, how you hold your body.
So the early church is at a crossroads and it has to make a big decision about how it’s going to integrategentiles into thecovenant:
Peter gets up and say: “ My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith God has made no distinction between them and us.”
The church decides that we’re just going to ask Gentles to observe four laws - no sexual immorality, eating food offered to idols, no eating meat that’s strangled or blood… some trace these back to the laws of Noah that Jews believe apply to all humans, but the bigger deal is what’s left out from the list: No mention circumcision and honoring the Sabbath, which is a huge deal because it’s one of the 10 commandments.
This significance of this decision is that what it means to follow Jesus and be Christian — to be part of this new spiritual community — is not about assimilating into the dominant group’s norms or in this case laws. What holds this diverse community together is the spirit of God which is in all of us.
So now that you have that context from the book of Acts, let’s jump back into Galatians. Paul’s writing about his trip to Jerusalem in Heidi he is bringing his Greek friend Titus, and he notices Peter, one of the key leaders in the early church, acting very strangely. He notices that Peter would eat with Gentiles, including Greeks, but when certain Jews -- would come, Peter would separate himself from the Gentiles and eat with the Jews. And Paul is fuming, he’s says, “"If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
If we were to translate this into modern-day America, we might ask, “Hey why are all the white kids sitting together for lunch? Why are all the blacks kids sitting there? Asian kids sitting over there?” And I can’t help but picture Titus, going to Jerusalem with Paul, kinda like a new kid shows up in school, and he’s wondering, “Who’s going to sit with me for lunch?”
Paul is going ballistic in this letter, he’s like:
“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified. The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?”
I’ll repeat: Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?
He’s arguing: our shared identity is about the Spirit of God, not with whose bodies or flesh matters more than others. And he would later say in that same later that in Jesus we are no longer slave/free, male/female, Jew/Greek — essentially these hierarchies are abolished. We are bound together by the same Spirit, so why we are then replicating these dynamics in church? Yes let’s bring in diversity but not inequity and hierarchy!
So when we look back at Paul’s words to Titus, where he says, “Don’t let anyone look down upon you” — a formulation btw which I much prefer over “don’t be intimidated” by it places the responsibility on the person who is intimidating you not you and your feelings - because we can read that as “Don’t let anyone look down upon you because you are Greek, you are a Gentile, you are not part of the dominant group.”
If he was writing a letter to the church today, he might say, “Don’t let anyone look down upon you because of your sexuality or your gender identity.” Take pride. He might say to you now, “Don’t let anyone look down upon you because of your job or your lack of a job your height your weight your body your mental illness your physical ability your addiction where you were born, whether you come from a shithole nation or not.” Because EVEN if the most powerful person in the world looks down upon you, there is yet a higher power PAUSE whose spirit is in all of us. There is a higher truth.
As a queer person, Paul’s not always my favorite, but I love Paul when he’s bringing the heat like this. Because stuff like this is what brings me back to this faith and tradition.
But we have a lot of work to do to realize this radical vision. So what are we going to do to de-colonize Christianity?
1. Let’s start looking at our consumption: Whose books and podcasts are we consuming? Is it all… mostly white people? Especially white men? Let’s start listening and paying attention to other voices especially within the church. I’ll post on FFs Facebook page some recommendations and you all can add to it.
2. Let’s talk about church. Who preaches? Who is paid to be on staff? who’s an elder? a deacon? who tends to sit in the front vs in the back? Who talks the most in small group? Who is listened to more? Who do people make eye contact with when they are talking?
My friend Derrick, who is Singaporean, once ran an experiment where he would observe his reaction to his friends’ comments and statements, and if he reacted differently if it was a female friend or coworker vs a male counterpart, and he said, “Omg sarah, i realized I do take women less seriously, i am more dismissive of their comments.” What if we all ran that experiment also? And do the same thing for race? For people who speak different accents?
3. One of my favorite examples of de-colonizing church can look like is in the book of Acts. they had this radical socialist system where no one had any economic needs because people would share resources and property. They had this daily distribution of food to widows, because widows had very little family to support them financially. But they started getting complaints that Greek speaking widows were being overlooked compared to Hebrew widows. So you know what the apostles, the leaders of the early church, who were mostly hebrew decided? they weren’t like oh we will track our distribution processes better, they said: Let’s appoint a group of seven deacons to handle the distribution of resources, and we are not even going to make that committee 50/50 Greek and Hebrew, we are going to ensure the entire group is Greek. I love this example because the early church recognized the fundamental problem was not resource-distribution but power-distribution. And they needed to level the power dynamic. What if we applied that logic today to current problems of inequity?
4. Ok to all my fellow immigrants out there, what cultural ritual or even religion have you been told to stay away from because it’s not Christian? What if you explored those rituals and even religions and found a way to authentically integrate it with your faith? If some of you are like what heresy is this... consider Christmas and Easter. Let’s look at Xmas. The date of Christmas comes from a pagan midwinter festival celebrated by the Druids, a Celtic religion, who would celebrate it by cutting down evergreen trees and putting it in their homes; Easter itself is probably influenced by an ancient Babylonian goddess named Ishtar whose symbols, as the goddess of love and fertility, were eggs and rabbits. So Europeans been playing this game for centuries; we gotta get in on the action. We’ve been missing out. Why do we have to assimilate into their version of christianity?
I think of my dad and how I kinda wish he was here — he’s not attending because of FF’s affirming stance on LGBTQ people — because when I think about how the Gospel can be a truly liberating force, I think of people like him, and how I, deeply wish, he, and all of us, could truly be free.