Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

Easter In 2 Sentences?

Easter is an amazing symbol which signifies all that we can hope for in that time which is to come!  It has a surplus of meaning and is overflowing with insights, interpretations, and implications.

A pastor friend of mine asked me a fun question today:

If you had to preach an Easter message in just 2 sentences, how would you do it?

Here are my sentences – and I would love to hear yours.

  1. Christ is the prolepsis * of humanity so that we know how this story ends: resurrection and new life for everyone !!!
  2. The glorified Christ can be seen in the gardener (hourly worker), the traveler (immigrant and refuge) and the stranger-become-friend (neighbor-other).

If you had to proclaim the truth of Easter in 2 sentences, how would you do it? 


*  Prolepsis is a concept that comes from ancient Roman theatre where a chorus or narrator would come out between acts of play and reveal how it all ends (aka: our hero accidentally kills his father and sleeps with his mother). The audience then goes back to the next act knowing how the play ends but not how the plot gets there. It is a type of foreshadowing that is explicit.

Silent Saturday

This is one of my favorite days of the years. Partly for its awkwardness and partly for its symbolic possibilities.

I grew up evangelical so we never really knew what to do with the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday except to get ready to get ready for the Sunday festivities. Our Catholic neighbors seemed to take the same approach.

Then I was a pastor in Saratoga Springs, NY and we had church on Saturday night. This was wonderful because, like the disciples in the story, we went back to business-as–usual with the full knowledge that it was anything but.

As a Mainline pastor you kind of hold your breath because you have been busy since Ash Wednesday and Lent has worn you down (especially if you gave up something fun) but you still have the biggest service or services of the year to get ready for.

I love Silent Saturday because as much as we declare that we are ‘an Easter People’ and as fond of substitutionary atonement as our worship choruses are, we live primarily on Silent Saturday.

I have been reading a lot in the last couple of years about the spirituality of everyday life.  It is a fascinating subset of thought.

Everyday has the possibility of being transformative and building up an accumulation of goodness. Think of what you could do if you did something 365 times in a row!

Unfortunately in the modern world, it too often becomes the repetition of monotony, boredom, and routine. We have been lulled into the quiet resignation of drudgery and the malaise of channel surfing and binge watching.

The amazing possibilities of the everyday has been drowned out by the dull droning and endless offerings of clickbait and online sales.

This is where our faith should make the biggest difference! Unfortunately something vital has been conceded and many are suffering for it in an impotent existence and unfruitful faith.

My friend put it this way:

” I think we killed belief in the resurrection with historical critical scholarship. When we did that (last century), we killed belief in a God who does anything in general…and the effects are trickling down. We sucked the life out of our tradition. Thing is, the scholarship adds up. It is right. We just need to find something to believe in again if we want our churches to invigorate. It just can’t be the harmonized, naive reading of the gospels. So…we’ve got work to do.”

We have work to do.

It is one of the reasons that I am excited to head back into the pulpit this summer.  This year of being a seminary professor has been a fascinating and eye-opening experience. I am professing at an Evangelical seminary on the heals of pastoring at a Mainline church.  I’m not sure that anything could have illustrated the profound and pronounced differences more than this. Continue reading “Silent Saturday”

How Good Was Friday? part 4

Part 4 in a series of 4. In part 1 I asked if our focus on blood and violence has caused us to miss something vital in the Easter story. Part 2 asked if we have mistakenly celebrated the very thing that Christ came to destroy? Part 3 asked if have heard the new word that God spoke in Christ or are we repeating the old word over and over? 

Do we need the cross? 

Had Jesus died some other way would we still be saved?

This thought experiment appeals to me for two reasons:

  1. Modern Protestants have overdone it on the cross.
  2. The incarnation and resurrection hold far more interest and power.

My assertion that over 90% of Christianity remains without the cross.

Jesus’ jewishness, the incarnation, resurrection, and Pentecost are the 4 things that still anchor the Christian church.

Keep in mind what I’m saying and what I am not saying:

  • Just because Jesus’ story went the way it did doesn’t mean that it had to go that way.
  • Just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean that God wants them that way.
  • Jesus’ resurrection could have followed any death – not just the cross.
  • The incarnation is where the old formulations of divine/human or transcendent/imminent are breached or fused.
  • The Christianity that we have was formed in the aftermath of the cross and resurrection … that is not evidence of the cross’ necessity.
  • Had Jesus died some other way, he still would have died once for all.
  • The satisfaction, propitiation, expiation and reconciliation that so many focus on in atonement theories are still there without the cross.
  • The Christianity that would have emerged would have been slightly different but still largely the same.
  • Jesus’ jewishness, the incarnation, resurrection and Pentecost are the 4 things that still anchor the Christian church.
  • The cross really doesn’t play that important of a role – not like the previous 4 – Jesus could have been beheaded or stabbed to death and reception would still have taken place. We would still have the gospel.
  • The cross is a migrating signifier [like palm branches] and now its main purpose is decoration on our buildings, necklaces, and t-shirts.

Once the Roman Empire co-opted christianity (the Constantinian Compromise) the cross has mostly been a hood-ornament on the machine of empire. Except for a few places on the periphery and during a few periods of severe oppression and domination … the more powerful church has been better historically, the more evident that is.

This point does not prove the thought-experiment, so I don’t want it to distract the conversation, but in the end … I’m not sure how much the cross really does for us.

This is one of the many reasons that I promote being an Incarnational Christian. That is where the power is – incarnation and resurrection!

  • Jesus could have died of sudden-infant-death-syndrome or of old age and still died once for all – the sinless one for sinful humanity.
  • Jesus could have been stabbed or beaten to death and it is still the resurrection where God vindicates the victim.

Continue reading “How Good Was Friday? part 4”

How Good Was Friday? part 3

Part 3 in a series of 4. In part 1 I asked if our focus on blood and violence has caused us to miss something vital in the Easter story. Part 2 asked if we have mistakenly celebrated the very thing that Christ came to destroy? In part 4 I will ask if we even need a cross (technically). 

We may have overdone it with the cross. It is out of proportion.  I want to I hear more about the empty tomb (resurrection) and the coming of Holy Spirit (pentecost).

It can seem like , for Protestant Evangelicals, that it is ‘all atonement theory – all the time’.

I have a friend who said “Discipleship is photo-shopping the cross into every picture and angle of my life.”  I asked him if the empty tomb wouldn’t be more appropriate. He said that you can’t have one without the other.

So is that what we are doing?

 Is ‘the cross’ shorthand for the whole story?

Is it assumed that when we say ‘Cross’ we mean also Resurrection and Pentecost?

That would make me nervous.

Here is my concern: in the resurrection God spoke a new word over the world. I would like to live into that new word and participate with God’s Spirit who was given as a gift and a seal of the promise.

To obsess on the cross and related atonement theories is to live perpetually in the old word and to camp in the final thing that God said about the old situation.

It manifests in odd ways too. When my school, Claremont, was entering into a new venture of a Multi-Faith University, new logos were drawn up for each participating school. One symbol and one color for each represented religion or tradition. It is actually a cool branding that sends a message I can really get behind.

The problem is that we, as the Christian representative, got a red logo with the Cross as our symbol. We couldn’t have gone with the Flame or the Dove or the Bible or anything else?  What is the deal with the Cross obsession? Is it really the best representative for what the whole religion is about?

It has also takes on weird colonial connotations which have compromised its essential message.

I’m just a little Crossed-out. It’s too much. It is out of proportion with the other elements of our faith and is used disproportionally to the other symbols we have.

I would like to see us move into God’s new word for the world – and move out of our perpetual lingering in God’s last word over the old world.

How Good Was Friday? part 2

Part 2 in a series of 4. In part 1 I asked if our focus on blood and violence has caused us to miss something vital in the Easter story. In part 3 I will ask if we have overdone it with the cross and in part 4 I will ask if we even need a cross (technically). 

Some one will object to my questions by asserting that “Jesus said to take up our crosses – we are a resurrection people and resurrection only happens after crucifixion.”

There are several problems here. cross-150x150

First, there was more than one cross. There were three in our Easter story only (but not in most of our pictures – like the one to the right). So you can’t say ‘the’ cross. You can say ‘that’ cross. It is vital to get just how many crosses there were. Roman use of crosses was systemic. Jesus’ cross was not an exception in that way.

Second, you are using ‘the cross’ as a shorthand for the whole story. The incarnation, crucifixion, empty grave and pentecost provide a much better snapshot. To sum them up in ‘the cross’ is too limited.

Third, we are people of the resurrection. That does not mean that ‘the cross’ is a good thing. What happened there was unjust. That God redeemed it and brought something good out of it … does not change that it was tragic.

How do we engage the cross still as people who follow Jesus?

It seems like most of the things that we say about the cross are the first half of what should be a longer sentence.

“We preach the cross and Christ crucified” … yes but what do we preach about the cross?  That is was unjust? That ‘it is finished’ (the sacrificial system)?

“Jesus died our sins” …  yes but also because of our sin? And to what end? To move us away from the scapegoating impulse? To expose and unmask our unjust propensity toward violence?

Here is the problem: if we are not careful, we miss the radical reversal that Jesus’ cross is supposed to provide and we end up simply absorbing it into the system that it was meant to expose. This is a tragedy that ends up normalizing the violence Jesus unmasks and continues the cycle of victimization Jesus was trying to break.

Because of the way talk about the cross in half-sentences and short-hand phrases, we end up siding with the Romans’ use of power and violence and miss the fact that on Good Friday, God was not on the side of the Romans but that God was with Jesus on that cross.

  • What do we do with the sacrificial lamb imagery? 

We see a trajectory in our canon. God moves Abraham from human sacrifice to animal & grain … later God moves on from that system ( you see this in passages like Psalm 40:6 “sacrifice and offering you did not desire” and Hosea 6:6 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice”)

People will often quote Hebrews 9:22 “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”. The half they leave out is that it actually says “under the law …” Continue reading “How Good Was Friday? part 2”

How Good Was Friday? part 1

It is almost Easter – my most conflicted time of year as a pastor.
I am smitten with the empty grave and with Pentecost. In fact, I am equally as excited about the Easter imagery as I am horrified by North American protestant’s fascination with the cross.
Initially this was a gut reaction. Then I went looking for resources I found these two books : Saved From Sacrifice by Mark Heim , The Non-Violent Atonement by Michael Hardin.
Two things seem to provide the ditch on either side of the road:
1 – Our most well attended services with the most visitors are our bloodiest in imagery.
2 – H. Richard Niebuhr’s  famous jab at ‘liberal’ christianity:
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without
judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
This quote has bite for 3 reasons:
1) It is so true. My migration from a charismatic/evangelical context to a more mainline one revealed to me just how many people would be covered by Niehbuhr’s concern. If your don’t hang out with mainline liberal folks, you might not realize how pervasive this allergy to blood is.
2) We live in a sanitized and sterilized culture (to paraphrase Cornell West) where most people have no connection to the meat on their table. They pick it up at the grocery store in plastic wrapped styrofoam containers. Only a small percentage of the population are farmers or hunters.
Meanwhile, we live in a horrifically violent culture (both domestic and military) but so few of us are familiar with blood. We outsource our violence.
This is why a penal substitutionary view of the cross is so attractive /acceptable for so many. The vicarious nature of god pouring out ‘his’ wrath on Jesus results in a pornographic delight that can be seen in depictions like that famous scene in our movies [The Passion] and in many of our contemporary worship songs.
3) That Niehbuhr quote is thrown around too easily whenever someone wants to reexamine or revisit underlying assumptions about how we understand Easter.
Let me be clear about what I am saying and what I am not saying:
  • I am not saying that there was no cross and that there was no blood. I get both, I accept both and I proclaim both.
  • I am saying that something perverse has seeped into our understanding and our imagery.
  • What happened on that cross was real.
  • What happened on that cross mattered.
  • What happened on that cross was unjust.
  • What happened on that cross changed humanity’s relationship to God.

My concern is that we have misunderstood both how it changed and why it changed.
Let me wrap up with a constructive proposal.

When Jesus takes the bread and cup and forever changes their meaning he is saying “what they will do to me – don’t you, as my followers, do to anyone else”.

When Jesus says “forgive them, they know not what they do”, he is saying that they think they know what (and why) they are doing, but they are wrong.

When Jesus says “it is finished”, he is proclaiming the end of this type of scapegoating and violence by those who think they are doing it on God’s behalf.

2 Corinthians 5:18-21, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. [The one] who had no sin [was made] to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
We are to be about peace. We are to be a people of reconciliation. In Christ, God absorbed the hatred and violence of the world. The one who knew no sin – an innocent man – was proclaimed guilty and God responds by proclaiming that we who are guilty of doing that are now innocent and our sins are forgiven.
This is the good news of gospel! This is the hope for human-kind. No one needs to be sacrificed any more. No one needs to die because God is angry – Christ’s unjust death is to be the last. In the empty grave we see the vindication of the victim. God took humanity’s wrong judgement of Jesus and now judges us right with God. We who are guilty are proclaimed innocent because the innocent one was found guilty.
Easter is the great reversal and the vindication of the victimized. It is finished. We can’t afford to keep missing this and repeating the mistake. We who follow Jesus must be about peace and reconciliation. Too many have been scapegoated, placed on crosses and victimized by violence … in Jesus’ name.
God forgive us – we know not what we are doing.
Let it be finished.
In Jesus’ name.
You can read part 2, part 3, and part 4 in this series.

Continue reading “How Good Was Friday? part 1”

Palms Are Political

A friend reminded me this week that I used to write about Easter frequently. Then in theology class this week several topics came up that related to Lent and Easter subjects. SO I thought it might be fun to rework some archived material and post it on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I would love to hear your thoughts.

When I was a children’s and family minister, Palm Sunday was fun. At our stained-glass and organ church did it up big. We got lots and lots of palm branches for folks to wave during the singing of the hymns and we had the kids process down the aisle and march around the sides of the pews. It is quite a visual.

That is the modern version of Palm Sunday. It is kids choirs and photo-ops and party-like atmosphere.

The original Palm Sunday was little bit different. It was not so cutesy and hallmark holiday. It was aggressive and it was deeply political.

The politics of Palm Sunday:

The Jewish people were under occupation. Roman occupation was especially repressive and brutal.IMG_0332.JPG (2)

The last time that the Jewish people had been free and self-governed also meant that they had their own currency. On their big coin, a palm branch was prominently displayed.

Laying down palm branches ahead of a man riding a colt/donkey was an act of defiance and an aggressive political statement.

We want to be free. This guy is going to change things and restore what was lost.

Having children wave palm branches in the equivalent to teaching a child to stick up her middle finger in anger… only more political. kid_soccer_fan

I am troubled by the lack of context regarding the palms of Palm Sunday. It reeks of both willful ignorance and religious disconnect.

I’m afraid the palms are just one more migrating signifier that no longer re-presents that which is supposed to signify. 

In so many ways we have sanitized, sterilized and compartmentalized the teaching of scriptures. We proudly and loudly defend the Bible – all the while neglecting the actual reality talked about in that Bible. Continue reading “Palms Are Political”

Race Research

This winter has been a fruitful time of researching issues related to race for my dissertation. Academic approaches to race, and specifically ‘whiteness’, are central to my examination of  ethnic, gender, and racial diversity within church and denominational leadership.

I know that academic stuff is not for everyone – so here are 6 amazing articles that I have found that I would love to pass along:

This is the best 3 page article I found. It is The Christian Century and it could be useful to teachers or to Sunday School classes. 

This article explains the idea of  ‘structuration’ introduced by Giddens which refers to the observation that:

“actors are as much producers as they are also products of society’s structurations.”

This is one of the more unique approaches that I have encountered. It is hard hitting and is primarily concerned with the language related to the struggle to understand race. 

There are few articles that I have highlighted more than this one. 

Rieger is one of my favorite authors. His ‘No Rising Tide’ on the economy and ‘Christ & Empire’ are classics. He also writes on Globalization and does interesting collaborations.

This last one is a little different. It does require that you have access to a research library to download [email me at] if you can’t get it. 

It is also an update / challenge to the famous 2000 book “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America

Race not only continues to be an issue of great importance to the church of N. America but some of us think that it is an increasingly critical issue for our lifetime.

 Please pass along any articles or links that you have found helpful! 

Pre-Woke Worship

It has been an interesting couple of weeks! I found out that I did not get the professor jobs I applied for and at the same time, I have been talking with churches and denominations about becoming a pastor again.

I have also been visiting different churches every Sunday to see what is happening out there. I figure that if I am headed back into local church ministry this might be a one time opportunity to do so. It has been an amazing experience and I will write more about it later.

Today I wanted to tell you about a podcast that I have really enjoyed listening to. The show is called Represent, where host Aisha Harris tackles different themes each week. Some weeks focus on pop culture, others on politics, some on media, others on relationships.

A new segment that has become a reoccurring feature is called ‘Pre-Woke Watching’ where the host and at least on other friend talk about some movie, TV show, or song that they used to enjoy but which needs reconsidering. It is fascinating series of conversation where young adults revisit things that they loved as children or teens in order to examine elements that now seem racist, sexist, hurtful, and dangerous.

In a recent episode, they evaluate a song from the original ‘Jungle Book’ animated movie from 1967. The song ‘I want to be like you’ is iconic and epic … but upon further review it is highly problematic with themes of colonialism superiority and racial undertones. Kids, obviously don’t know about Roger Kipling and Disney is not obligated to be forthright about his influence.

Where the conversation gets even more interesting is in the final assessment when they ask each other, “So … can you watch/listen to that anymore?”. It is fascinating to listen to the rational/justification regardless of whether the answer is yes or no. My favorite answer is

“I’m going to keep listen to/watching it because I have really fond memories and associations with it … but my kids will not be watching it because I don’t want them to be introduced to it.”

It is in the inverse of so many conversations I get to have with people who are rethinking-reevaluating the way that they and their families are participating in faith/church. From them I hear things like “I just can’t sing that song anymore in good conscience … but I my kid really likes it and I want them to have good feelings about the church/faith.”

These are interesting conversations because for so many people their faith/ view of the Bible  or understanding of God / prayer has changed or matured from what they grew up with. They are truly concerned both with finding a posture and practice of faith that has integrity for them and works for their kids/teens.


I like the podcast partly because it is interesting to listen in to folks wresting with similar issues only in a very different arena. It reminds me of the journey through criticism into a second faith that I referenced (about Ricouer) a couple of weeks ago. I referenced it again at the ‘Theology on Tap’ event the other night about how our views on the afterlife mature and evolve.

Worship songs, however, seem to be the biggest point of contention. Wether it is bloody penal substitutionary atonement songs about the cross, exclusive masculine and heavy use of father language, overly sappy romantic imagery, or my least favorite – the unnamed ‘You’.

Side-note: pronouns such as ‘you’ need an antecedent such as ‘Doug’ or ‘Mom’ or ‘God’. Last week at church the opening song used ‘You’ sixteen times without even saying ‘god’ or  ‘Lord’. It drives me crazy. If we never stipulate who it is we are addressing …

So I sang the song to the guy sitting in front of me!  “You are great, you have a good heart, I trust you and I need more of you in my life.” 

Anyway – I would love to hear about any pre-woke worship experiences, practices, or songs that just don’t seem the same now that you know what you know.



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