Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

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.



Hope They Serve Tacos In Hell

I am speaking at a ‘theology on tap’ event this evening hosted by the local Lutheran congregation. I agreed to do it and then I was informed the this month’s topic is the afterlife.

I had planned on wearing a “I hope they serve tacos in hell” T-shirt to the event. Unfortunately, they were sold out of them in my size [which makes you wonder about big guys being really invested in the cause].

I made the mistake of telling some friends and coworkers about this plan and it did not go over well. At first, their resistance came from the fact that a pastor and theology professor might be sending mixed messages by seeming  to endorsing hell.

Then I realized that we were coming at this from completely different directions. Here is my two-fold logic on the issue:

  • If there is a hell, it is probably going to be a pretty bad place – by the very nature of what it is. I just think that for as bad as it is going to be, it would be nice if there was something good in the day!

This just seems like a kind and Christian heart of compassion to me.

  • There is a chance that I am going to hell. I don’t mean that in an “I deserve it for what I’ve done” sorta way. I just mean that statistically I have run the numbers. If the Mormons, or the strict Catholics, Hindus or any number of other groups turn out to be correct, I could (statistically speaking) end up in that group’s version a bad place.

If that is the case, I would like to know that I get tacos from time to time.

This line of reasoning is slightly tongue-in-cheek but I have found it to be an amazing litmus test. I have actually been shocked at now almost no one has thought about the fact that they could end up in a place other than the eternal penthouse.

I’m really looking forward to tonight and I will let you know how it goes.

There Is No Neutral Anymore

Perhaps the most important theme that has developed for me in 2017 is the ongoing realization that there is no neutral position. This has been with me conceptually for the past decade but the seminary classroom has made it less abstract.

One of the great challenge and great opportunities of the multi-denominational seminary is that students come in with layers of experiences, perspectives, loyalties, and insights. They do not come in as clean slates or blank canvases. We never start from scratch (thank God).

Training for ministry does not happen in a vacuum. It happens some where and some when. That is why yesterday I wrote that truth is not dead, it just needs to be understood as situated.

This is a big revelation and a potential stumbling block for some! Truth and meaning do not materialize out of thin air – they are constructed socially. The realization that our access to truth is partial, provisional, and perspectival comes with some profound implications.

Meaning, then, is correspondingly understood to be:

  1. Mediated
  2. Located
  3. Contested

Meaning is mediated because our understanding comes to us through inherited language, social constructs, and mental frameworks (paradigms).

Meaning is located because the same event or data may look very different or be interpreted differently by a different person in another place or time.

Meaning is contested because in a partial/perspectival understanding, no one interpretation gets a free ride or an automatic pass. Everything is up for review.


This realization can have a disrupting effect and can lead to disorientation. However, once it is embraced, there is a comforting peace that can settle in as knowledge of the world and claims within faith correspond more accurately to history and to the world as it really is.

Perhaps the two most significant implications are for the person who has been sold an ideology and for the perennial skeptic. Those two positions are tough to maintain in this new reality. There is no neutral (or exempt) position anymore. One does not simply get to sit back and poo-poo other’s perspective without providing an alternative. It is not sufficient to take shots at or poke holes in opinions that you disagree with.

Because our culture, and our understanding of truth, is so fractured … one has to make the claim or justify ones position in the arena of ideas or the court of public discourse. Nothing gets off scot-free, no idea gets a free ride, and no position is exempt from examination.

There is no neutral anymore. Inactivity reinforces the status quo and is, by default, taking a position.*

Two quick examples: theology and hair.

Whether the topic is women in ministry or speaking in tongues, it is not sufficient for the cynic to encounter a new perspective and simply say “I don’t know about that”. 20 or 40 years ago that may have worked, but it works no longer. If a young man wants to be skeptical after reading feminist theology or looking at charismatic excesses, he gets to do that, but he must bring something to the table in its stead. No longer can one take the privileged position of retreating to the way things are as a defense against engaging new ideas and challenging critiques.

This is a new reality that takes some adjustment. It can be uncomfortable for those who have been groomed or conditioned to succeed in the traditional way things have been.

Hair is an interesting example. It is not enough to make snarky comments about how trendy beards are without realizing that shaving in a social performance as well. One may feel free to criticize the money and attention that a women puts into her hair – but not doing your hair is a decision as well. For both men and women, shaving your legs and armpits are both political statements. For women of a certain age, coloring the gray and not coloring become an issue. A womanist friend of mine explained that African-American women can go-natural, use product, straighten or braid (among a myriad of other options) but they all make a statement (sometimes political) and that position will be reviewed and will likely be contested. There is no neutral.

Sir, you can criticize my expensive organic fair-trade cotton Tshirt, but your $4 Walmart knockoff sweatshop shirt or not wearing any shirt at all are both up for review as well.

Like it or not, the age of inactivity is over. Sitting in your house or protesting the government, cooking at home or going out to eat, buying nice furniture or going off the grid, having kids or using protection  are all statements and they are all consequential.



*Academics might reference this as the nature of the hegemonic order. The 20th century saw the ability to presume the established order of things dissolve at every level. Economy, politics, military, ecology, morals, religion, civility, marriage, gender, sexuality, occupations and trades are just a few examples of categories that display this loss of fixed and stable assumptions.  

Is Truth Dead?

You have probably seen the attention-grabbing cover of this week’s Time magazine. It is a very real issue in our culture and it has serious implications for how we approach faith and church.

Truth has been an urgent topic this semester in the seminary classroom as some students have been asking what it means to think about religion and faith in a “post-truth” society.

I know that some status quo cynics and kind conservatives will smirk and try to dismiss these developments as just the latest assault on ‘what the church has always believed’. They will point to Herod asking “what is truth” in John 18:38 or quote Jude 1:3 and attempt to hide behind “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints”.

Both of those attempts at dismissive evasion miss the point that something has shifted in our culture.

My hope is to seize this moment and to have an honest-to-God reality check that engages in an open-eyed assessment of the actual situation that we find ourselves in.

Here is the approach that I am taking with my students: 

We are exiting a time when truth has been purported to be both universal and timeless. IF that were ever true, and that is debatable, then it is certainly less true today than it ever has been.

First, nothing is timeless. Even if one wants to assert that something is not time-bound, it at least has to be time-ly. 2nd Temple Judaism, Pentecost, the Council of Constantinople, the Nicene Creed, Augustine’s confessions, Thomism, the Protestant Reformation, the birth of Methodism, the 2nd Great Awakening, and the Azusa Street revival were not timeless. They were all timely.

Second, things are not universal – they a situated, located, and particular. Things can not be presumed to be the same everywhere and simply applied anywhere. When and where (not to mention how and why) matter deeply.

Having said that, we have an opportunity (here and now) to evaluate our approach to truth and assess how we want to address this crisis in our culture.

Side-note: perhaps the worst thing that we could do at this kairos moment is to double-down on our truth claims of past centuries and continue to ignore the fact that things may not work as well, as smoothly, as predictably, or as justly as we had been told.

A great start begins with this realization:

Any claim to truth is:

  1. Partial
  2. Provisional
  3. Perspectival

It is partial because I never have all of the information – if there is a ‘god’s eye view’ I do not have access to it. Reality check: if there is a God, you are not God. This doesn’t mean that you have no access to truth – only that you have limited access to truth.

It is provisional because it will need to be amended as new data becomes available. I am free to say ‘at this point, here is what I understand’. If you are under the impression that something is ‘set in stone’, you need to come to terms with the fluid nature of our understanding and the perpetual/liquid nature of our access to all that is going on both in what we can see and the stuff behind the scenes.

It is perspectival because you can only see things from where you stand. Get rid of any notion of being ‘objective’ – you are subjective (thank God) and any access we have to truth is subject to review.

Is truth dead? Not exactly. 

Is our understanding of truth in need of adjustment for our liquid era of perpetual motion and exponential change? Yes. 

Do we still get to believe that things are true? Yes! 

Does that require a little bit of humility and even repentance from our addiction to certainty? Absolutely. 

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