Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


5 min video

Naming Whiteness

White normalcy works in silence by going unnamed.

When something doesn’t have a label, it can be assumed to be ‘normal’ or regular.

You can see another post about whiteness here:

The Virus of War

We need to be careful about this language of a war against the virus. In the last 30 years war has migrated in meaning it has become too easily appropriated for anything we are concerned about.

We could talk about varieties that have global implications like the war on terror, to more seasonal and trivial instances like the so-called war on Christmas, and everything in between.  We could talk about the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on women, and so many other instances of war migrating in dangerous ways.

There are two primary reasons for concern:

  • First, whenever war is invoked emergency measures are implemented and we are in danger of losing our rights at citizens. I will talk about emergency politics below.
  • Second, because of global capitalism and our pervasive consumer society the victory in these wars is somehow always linked shopping.

You will remember the now famous exhortation by then President George W. Bush after the events of September 11 to not let the terrorists win by … going shopping.

A brilliant article came out this week about the impending call “return to normal”. We would be wise to pay attention to how that phrase is going to be used–not everyone means the same thing when they use the same words.

American politicians have become very comfortable invoking the war analogy but it really got my attention this past weekend when the Prime Minister of Canada used to the phrase. As a dual citizen between Canada and the US it always gets my attention when something that I had thought was unique to the American military mentality shows up north of the border.

Then yesterday during the extended media circus of a Covid 19 press conference, the current President of the United States repeatedly claimed that the powers of his office were total.

This is the danger of our exceptional times–exceptions get made that are nearly impossible to retract later. They get codified and instantiated, which sets the precedent, which then moves from being a fluid situation due to an emergency to a solidified expectation that is written in stone. 

The problem is that we now live in a permanent state of emergency.

I write about Emergency Politics every so often. It is far more ominous than its news coverage. Here is a snippet for those who are new:

Bonnie Honig, in Emergency Politics, says “The state of exception is that paradoxical situation in which the law is legally suspended by sovereign power.”

September 11, 2001 ushered in a state of perpetual exception. This applies to racial profiling, police brutality, State surveillance of its citizenry in the NSA – to name only a few.

When people are scared they willingly sacrifice their freedom and privacy in exchange for safety. The State benefits from a frightened population and people are more willing to accept the exceptional measures.

A population is more willing to view as exceptional the excessive tactics and escalation of violence precisely because we now live in a permanent state of exception (or emergency).

Gulli [in this article ] reports, “At the end of his critique of the state of exception, Giorgio Agamben addresses the question of contingency, which is very important in all of his work, when, with a reference to Benjamin, he speaks of “the urgency of the state of exception ‘in which we live’” (2005)

In his eighth thesis on the philosophy of history, Walter Benjamin says:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency.” (1968)

I bring this up in the hopes that our current crisis might help to create a real sense of emergency that will call into question in the larger American conscience a question about the permanent state of exception that has crept in over the past decades.

We must question the exceptional State and its emergency politics that have become too normalized and quietly accepted in our society.

Silent Saturday

5 min Good Friday reflection

See the sermon notes below on Has Von Balthasar

I grew up without much pageantry around Holy Week. We were holiness evangelicals and we kept things pretty simple and minimal.

I have grown to like some of the liturgical elements of Easter week. The palms of Sunday, the meal of Maundy, Good Friday’s Tenebrae and of course the anthems and colors of Easter Day.


I still never knew what to do with Silent Saturday. The creeds say that Jesus descended into hell. The Bible says that Jesus preached liberty to the captives – I have also heard this translated that he proclaimed victory over the evil powers. In church history it often gets called ‘the harrowing of hell’ which sounds more like something from the shire in the Lord of The Rings.

Then a couple of years ago I found this catholic theologian named Hans Von Balthasar.

[ Book: Dare We hope that all shall be saved (side note: turn toward ‘beauty – and away from self)

The vision of suffering love and its power is Christ on the cross]

He talks about suffering love and the power that is seen in the moments when Christ is on the cross. This is the beginning of a theology of Holy Saturday : The day when Christ is dead – that is to say the day when God is dead.  The eternal 2nd person of the trinity is a dead man.

Von Balthasar says that we get the death of Christ wrong when see him as a conqueror descending into hell victorious. We have over-emphasized the aspect of his ‘rescuing’ the Jewish patriarchs

And we need to really embrace that his dead among the dead.

Think about that: the is a victim, scapegoated and railroaded, beaten and battered. Humiliated and made into a spectacle to intimidate future rebels. Hung up like a warning sign on the outskirts of town to alert everyone as to who was in charge. There was not just one cross that day – there were at least three. There would have been dozens that lined the road into the city. Rome crucified hundreds of conquered rebels and would be revolutionaries. He hung between to bandits that day (thieves is too mild a translation).

 He was dead among the dead.

He felt abandoned by God – separated from his source of life, identity, and direction.

[von Balthasar thinks that christ descended into Sheol (not the place of punishment called Gehenna) and after his resurrection when he brought so many with him, that what was left was Gehenna. Sheol would have been the Jewish understanding that Jesus had at the time. Also translated ‘the pit’- not a place of punishment, not the afterlife, there is nothing there but being dead. ]

He went to the place of the dead. Sank to the depths of death. He enters into the pit.

More dead than anyone. More dead than any sinner. As the author of life, he was the most kind of dead.

This was thought to be good news of a sort. Every person who dies descends into this place – goes down in to the pit – and finds Christ already there.

Christ awaits you in death. More dead than you are. More forsaken than anyone ever. More abandoned than you. More separated from God that anyone has ever experienced.

It is in the separation from God that every human is embraced. Into that vacuum the dead are held in Christ.

We find a brother in death. We are not alone in the pit. We have a advocate in the midst of our suffering.

The author of life died a death and became the most dead – now doubly dead, lives to advocated for us – our great high priest – whose name is love – suffered death to the depth of despair.

I want to share this with you during this difficult time of isolation and distancing because the teaching on Holy Saturday says that you will never experience greater suffering, separation, or despair than the one who died and is ahead of us in death. You will never be more dead, more abandoned, more forsaken, more despised or rejected than one who goes ahead of you.

You are never alone and there is always one who can sympathize. Christ has gone ahead of you and lives to interceded on our behalf.


Unknown Knowns

If you need a little encouragement today, here is a 6 min sermon.
It plays off of Rumsfeld and Zizek

  • known knowns (things we know that we know)
  • known unknowns (things we know that we don’t know)
  • unknown unknowns (things we don’t know that we don’t know)

Then Zizek reminds us that the 4th quadrant would be “unknown knowns”

If you like this you can also check out an early rendition based on Phronesis

Romans 5

Embracing Cynicism

It may be time to embrace cynicism.

Our cultural moment may be calling for it.

Several years ago I was part of a leadership development cohort of young people and on the final day before they sent us back to the places that we came from all over the globe the leader encourage us to stop working on our weaknesses.

It really caught my attention because up to that point I been under the impression that my primary job was to become a well-rounded person and leader into bring up my weakest areas so it would’ve matched everything else. He said “no, put almost all of your energy into you area of strength – the thing that makes you unique only work on your weakness to the degree that it would disqualify you from ministry or cripple your leadership take away your credibility”.

Don’t work on your weakness – put all your energy into your strength – only work on your weakness enough that it does not cripple you or disqualify you from leadership.

I’ve always thought that was an interesting idea and I logged it in the back of my head carrying around all of these years and once in a while I see something and I think this calls for that I was recently out of the news cycle in the political arena for several weeks due to illness and then work stuff and then caring for family and so I was out of the loop and coming back into it has been rough.

It has been really eye-opening and I’ve noticed that when people are cynical or critical that sometimes they have an internal message that the cynical suspicion is something negative to be resisted.

I want to consider today that it might actually be the perfect time to be cynical.

A couple of years ago my friend Tad DeLay wrote a book called “The Cynic and the Fool”and I was in conversation with him around that time.  I’ve noticed that it is not healthy to define yourself by what you’re not!  There’s no fruit in that. There’s nothing nourishing about defining yourself in contrast to somebody else or some other group

What I am saying is that because of how we participate in our society – especially in the media age (the Society of Spectacle is one of my favorite books) – that we are conditioned, trained, and well-practiced at being cynical. It helps us not be so vulnerable and susceptible to the stunts and lies that are constantly put in front of us.

Embrace the cynicism to the degree that it compels you toward action.  

So that’s my encouragement for today that that maybe this isn’t something to be resisted and that maybe it’s entirely appropriate for our moment and that it’s not a negative thing.

Maybe a little cynicism isn’t the worst thing in the world – especially if Zizek is right and the light at the end of the tunnel is another oncoming train.

Why Us vs Them

I am preparing to lead a 3-month book discussion of The Church of Us vs. Them by David Fitch for the adult Sunday school at my church.

My plan is to pair the chapter in the book with a different book, school of thought, or historical movement. Some of these include The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen, The Peaceable Kingdom by Stanley Hauerwas, and the Anabaptist tradition.

Here are the 7 conversations that I hope will come up in the next 3 months:

  1. The church is supposed to be an alternative way of life – a prophetic and subversive witness to the world – that critiques the ways of the world and provides an alternative way of being in the world. She works best as a minority position within the larger culture and is not designed to be in charge or in control of culture.
  2. Neither the Republican or Democratic party can fix the problem of society. The Democrat and Republican parties are two sides of the same flawed coin. They are not the solution to the problem – they are manifestations of the problem.
  3. The church is not a middle way between these two camps (compromise) but it supposed to be a third way (alternative) to their ways. What we call ‘the church’ is so saturated with both Empire and consumerism that it is completely impotent to confront the ‘powers-that-be’ – which crucified the Prince of Peace (as a scapegoat) – and these powers continue to make life worse for most of humanity.
  4. The American ‘church’ is in bed with the systems of this world that reinforce racism, sexism, poverty, and militarism – 3 of those 4 things Martin Luther King Jr. called the ‘triplets of evil’.
  5. There is a way of living, which Jesus modeled for us and taught about, that leads out of the muck-and-mire we find ourselves in and opens up the hopes and potential of a different way of being in the world. That is the good news of the gospel (evangel).
  6. The church has the potential (capacity) to be the most beautiful and profound vehicle (venue) for unleashing human flourishing and peace. She does this by resisting evil, acting in love, and advocating for those who are vulnerable or on the margins.
  7. The kingdom (or kin-dom) of God is actually within reach but the church has compromised and been corrupted by being in alliance with Empire and the systems of this world. What we call ‘church’ is a shadow of what is supposed to be. Us vs. Them thinking is a symptom of that disease.

Here is a quick video (5 min) to introduce the topics:

Let me know your thoughts, questions, and concerns.

Deconstruction and the Dark Night

Is there a connection between deconstruction and the dark night of the soul?

Many who participates in deconstruction experience the dark night. Not everyone, however, who experiences the dark night of the soul has been doing deconstruction.

There is enough overlap that it is worth exploring.

Many people who begin to deconstruct their faith experience various levels of disorientation, discouragement, depression, and even despair. It is difficult to dismantle the thing that used to give you shelter and even structure your experience and very existence. You begin to question everything that you have been taught, the people who taught it to you, and even yourself for being misled, fooled, or indoctrinated.

This can trigger feelings of abandonment, isolation, embarrassment, shame, and god-forsakeness at times.

This is where I find the work of Peter Rollins very helpful. He says things like

“I’m not trying to make you depressed, I trying to help you see that you are already depressed.”

One of my favorite things that he introduced me to (working off a thinker named Lacan) is called the Experience of Absence and the Absence of Experience. Let’s say that you and I are sitting at two table in the coffee shop. We are in the same place doing the same thing at the same time – with one big difference: you are expecting a friend who has not shown and is not answering your texts or calls.

You are experiencing your friend’s absence, whereas I am having an absence of that experience.

This is helped me so much over years since Peter’s book “How (Not) To Speak of God” came out. It has become a key for me that has unlocked a door into a much bigger auditorium of ideas.

I have learned to embrace the experience of absence. I actually prefer it of the absence of experience. I know that something is wrong or missing – but I would rather sit in that awareness than not know and sit in my happy naiveté.  I would rather be awake the beautiful disaster than not-awake and happy.

This is not a criticism of anyone else and I know many who would disagree with me.

One of the treasures that gives me comfort in the Experience of Absence is that we have resources for this crisis inside our tradition. One of my favorites buried treasures in Christian history is called ‘via negativa’ or the apophatic tradition.

It basically says that god – by the very nature of being god – is so expansive, beyond human comprehension or our ability to explain or describe the divine essence in anything that resembles its reality – that it is more accurate to speak of god in the inverse or negative.

I love this idea.

If there is something as grand as god then every time we try to assert something about god we both say it and inherently un-say it at the same time. [1]

Via Negativa shows that it is actually easier and more accurate to speak of god in the inverse: that god is not like anything or anyone you can compare to (analogy). Even when you try so say something in the positive, whatever you say is actually far more true in the inverse.

Whatever we know about god or believe about god, there is infinitely more that is unknown and unsaid (unexplored).

Any god-talk is actually more untrue about the actual divine than it is true.

Why do I bring this up? In the same way that I have learned to embrace the Experience of Absence, I have come to love the infinitely beyond-me. Deconstruction is concerned with the limitations of words and that has been immensely rewarding as it connects with Via Negativa and another deep idea:

Paul Ricoeur has a concept called Second Naiveté when you pass through the desert of criticism (deconstruction?) and come into faith again with your eyes open. It is not first faith and it is criticism. It is Faith Again but awakened to the mystery (moment).

I could talk and write for days about Ricoeur. His concept of ‘a surplus of meaning’ has transformed my life, faith, and ministry.

None of this the same as the 16th century Catholic concept of ‘the dark night of the soul’ which leads to mystical union with god. There are, however, enough similarities and overlaps that they all belong in the same conversation.

The Experience of Absence, Via Negativa, 2nd Naiveté, and the Dark Night have all helped me on the deconstructive journey.  I would love to hear about helpful resources that you have found.

Let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

[1] Two great examples are found in the analogy of ‘rock’ and ‘father’.

Scripture often refers to god as ‘a rock’ to signify strength, resilience, and trustworthiness. But of course god is not actually a rock and a rock is not god. It is a metaphor or analogy at best.

Jesus sometimes referred to god as ‘father’. This was of course relational language saying that he related to God as one relates to a (perfect image of) father. Not that god was big man in the sky who got Mary pregnant.

God is as different from our earthly father as god is anything like those beautifully flawed human men.

The Danger with Deconstruction

Deconstruction is a word that is growing in popularity with groups like the ex-vangelical, post-christian,  and even younger evangelical crowds.

As with many concepts that get diluted for mass dissemination, the popularized version of the term is more generic, palatable, generous or even hopeful that the original.

Said another way – deconstruction in its more raw form is difficult, critical, suspicious, and subversive.

Why am I bringing this up? I have noticed two trends within evangelical (or post-evangelical) types when talking about deconstruction.

  1. Many use the word to simply mean “asking bigger questions for the first time”. Now, asking bigger questions and examining ones tradition or beliefs is fantastic. I just want to be clear that asking bigger questions is a good first step but is not all that deconstruction is about.
  2. Others have taken to always pairing deconstruction with reconstruction. I have even seen it given the initials D/R (or De/Re) as if they go together.

Neither of these is the best development and so I thought I would just speak up in favor of the original impulse or sense of deconstruction.

I would like to say something in the positive and then in the negative (which is appropriate for the topic)

Positive: Deconstruction is love. It is not destruction. It is not demolition. Think of deconstructing an old barn. It is taking it apart timber by board, one nail at a time, in order to see (or show) how it is put together and how it stays together and works (functions). It wants to expose how it is assembled and where the various parts come from and where it fits in the function of the whole farm. Deconstruction may or may not ‘salvage’ what could be useful (or repurposed) in a different format.

Deconstruction is neither knocking the barn down with a bulldozer (demolition) nor is it setting the barn on fire (destruction). You have to love the thing to justify the time and painful energy to painstakingly pull it apart in an orderly and examined way.

If you didn’t love it you would either smash it in anger or just walk away and abandon it.

In the past I have used a plant analogy about how potted plants can get rootbound when they have been in the same pot too long and how it not only stunts their growth but how the roots will circle back and grow in on themselves. Institutions are like this. I still use the root-bound analogy for organizations, denominations, and groups … but it doesn’t have enough bite (or teeth) for the task of deconstruction.

Negative: You will never get the original thing back. You deconstructed the barn because there was something structurally flawed and deeply unsafe about it. You didn’t deconstruct the barn simply because it was old or outdated or had outlived its usefulness. There was something troubling, suspicious, and unusable.

This is the limit of the plant analogy. You might pull at the roots of a plant and repot it in a more spacious vessel in order to sustain its life and let it grow. This is the re/construction impulse that hopes to prune the vine in order to stimulate new growth.

I love the plant analogy and embrace the pruning for new growth mentality … I just want to be clear that this is not what deconstruction means.

I wrote several years ago about deconstruction and I still hold to much of my outlook from back then.

The one thing that has changed is that deconstruction is come into more common usage and its popular version is safer and less edgy than the non-diluted original.  So I want to be clear about something:

Deconstruction is not repairing the broken elements of something or tweaking the outdated parts. Call that renovation or restoration.

Just to be clear:

  • Destruction and demolition have their time and place.
  • Renovation and restoration have their time and place.
  • Even reconstruction has its time and place.

None of them are the same as deconstruction.

Deconstruction interrogates, second-guesses, mistrusts, speculates, and may even subvert that which is being investigated.

Deconstruction may come from a suspicion that something is fundamentally wrong.

Why does this matter? There is a growing tension between the increasingly common-use of the term deconstruction amongst parishioners and seminarians versus the agitation that term causes those in institutional leadership. It is obvious to see why those who run churches and seminaries don’t like deconstruction: they are inherently preservationists and conservationists. It is the nature of the job!

Evangelicalism is construct. It is a loosely configured constellation of loyalties. The boundary has to be highly guarded and aggressively defended because it is so fragile and temperamental. So those in charge of its unstable institutions don’t want their members and participants poking around at the foundation, calling everything into question, and pulling at every loose thread to see if it holds together.

Of course church leaders and seminary administrators are not big fans of deconstruction – it feels like sawing at the very branch you are standing on. It is somewhere between unsafe and unwise.

Having said that, it might be a good reminder that deconstruction is neither demolition or destruction … but it is also not renovation, restoration, or reconstruction.

I know that all terms are prone to drift and migration from their original intent (just look identity politics or ‘me too’) but wanted to be clear that deconstruction is more than just asking big question about the inherited tradition and it is not primarily for the purpose of reconstruction.

The danger with deconstruction is that the thing you loved enough to spend energy on will never be the same. You can’t just rebuild or refurbish it back to its original condition. Both you and the thing you loved are trans-formed.

Preaching to the Choir

How should we handle the ‘crisis of the week‘ from the pulpit?

In my year of being a professor I visited lots of churches. I noticed a predictable trend:

  • Evangelicals never preaching on the news
  • Mainliners almost exclusively preached on the news

I made a decision (based on past experience) to go a different direction – and it has led to mixed results.

Do I need to change my sermon every time something happens in the news? If I did that, all I would ever do is respond to the ‘crisis of the week’ … but if I never do it, then I am not speaking to the issues of the day.

I could use some help thinking this through.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑