Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Y is for Y2K

Is the way that the world runs today the way that is has to be?
What would it take for the world to work a different way?
Can you imagine something better than democracy or an economic system after capitalism?
Is society in its final form?

[We are nearing the end of the ABCs of Faith in Sunday School . Listen to previous discussions here]  Expanded PDF : Y is for Y2K (preview)


From 1991-2003, I was taught to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other – I no longer believe that.

In my short lifetime I have seen so many predictions come and go. I have seen layers and layers of moving onto the next thing a passage means without even acknowledging that 6 months ago we were told it was something different.

I just had a talk this weekend with a denomination leader about how end-times expectations have changed in their lifetime. We talked about young leaders and how different their eschatology is from 50 years ago.

My hope for the next 3 decades is that sincere people of faith get fatigued on this unfulfillingway to read the Bible and this next generation is released and empowered with an understanding of genre that does not leave them susceptible and vulnerable to panic over sensations like y2k and franchises like Left Behind.

The world is in too great a need for really great people to be distracted by thinking that apocalyptic is A) predictive and B) about the 21st century.

Here we have 2 crippling problems to confront – and the problem is that they compound the effect of each other intensely.

The more minor problem is the one that we have touched on above: a loss of the prophetic or our Christian imagination.

The major, and more hideous problem, is something called “final forms”. We live in an era where systems have become so solidified, concrete, and assumed that are assumed to be ends in themselves.

  • Capitalism is the pinnacle economic system.
  • Democracy, while flawed, is superior to all others.
  • Nationalism will never be topped or undone.

They are final forms that, once invented or introduced, are here to stay.

And there is an ominous implication:

  • Christianity is purported to be in its final form.

The faith we have today cannot be reexamined, tinkered with, or questioned. It is written in stone and unchanging.

In fact, it gets worse – true Christianity was found in the early church and the answer to our current problems is to get ‘back’ to that kind of a faith – sort of a ‘make religion great again’ mentality.


Come this Sunday at 9 to hear the rest …   Art for the series by Jesse Turri


The Church’s Task

In the next 24 hours I will be putting up 4 blogs – taken together, you will be able to tell what I have been thinking about the past month.  I would love your feedback on any of them.

Last month David Fitch tweeted this:

“The biggest task of today’s church is to undermine in its members the blase unexamined acceptance of secular assumptions for everyday life.”

I thought about it all day and just couldn’t be sure he was right on this one.

Now just to let you know where I am coming from:

Put that all together, I have doubts about Fitch’s assertion. Here is why:

I am increasingly suspicious that secularism is both a consequence and a side effect of Christendom. It is the West’s Frankenstein if you will. We made it. Then it took on a life of its own – a life we don’t like very much and which damages our efforts and injures our cause.  I think we have to start there.

I agree with Fitch that there is a ‘unexamined acceptance” and would go even further and say that it results in an assumption that what we see is the way it is. That our current mechanisms of organization are final forms and that the ‘as-is’ structures come with a large measure of ‘giveness’.  Tripp often applies this capitalism, nation-states and democracy. I would tack on both denominations for the church and militarism for US America.

I am just not so sure that our main task is to undermine. Maybe that is where my hangup comes. I am leery of this approach because it seems like we are defaulting the ground rules in the initial move and framing the task in a conceding first move.

I might be naive here but I am just not sure that the church needs to
A) give that much ground initially
B) frame her task in the negative.
I know it’s just so much one can do with a tweet but … there is something there that gives me caution.

So what is my constructive proposal?  I’m working on it.

I would want to frame it more like Stuart Murray does in the book Post-Christendom  and acknowledge that initial concession was early on with Constantinian Christianity. Then Christendom. Then Modernity.  With those three concessions we admit that the as-is nature of existing frameworks for both church and culture are thoroughly compromised and corrupted.

BECAUSE of that. We abandon the recuperation, rehabilitation, reclamation , and renovation projects (and mentality) all together! (all 4 faces of it).

It’s over man.  Let it go.

THEN we start new and in the positive. The 21st century provides fresh possibilities and opportunities IF ONLY we will let go the idea of getting back to something or getting something back. I know we never start from scratch – we never get back to square one. But …

I don’t want to be the undermining parasite ON the big organism. That is too small a task.  I want to partner with God in the healing of world (Tikkun Olum in Hebrew).  I want to participate in the development cosmic good – until then at least the common good. 


PostScript: now that I started down this “re” line I can’t stop coming up with words I want to flesh out further!
Restore: no
Re-imagine: yes
Represent: yes
Re-member: sure
Resurrect: ummmm not really
Reflect: probably

I Voted For the First Time Last Week

Seven days ago I voted for the very first time.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to puncture the seal – cross that threshold – and break my long string of abstaining.

 Here is the background on why I have never voted: 

  • In High-school my family moved from the Chicagoland area to Saskatchewan, Canada. After High-school I stayed in Canada to play football when my family moved to NY and I became a dual citizen.

When you come of age outside your culture of origin, you see some stuff within that culture a little differently. Voting (and politics in general) was one of them. I didn’t see its impact locally like I would have if I was a farmer or a school teacher, I saw it through the media circus. Loyalty and responsibility take on a different meaning when you have dual belonging.

  • When I got filled with Holy Spirit and called to ministry I was initiated in a very dualistic form of evangelical charismatic christianity. It was spiritual in contrast to physical. Church in contrast to world. Supernatural in contrast to natural.

I was a zealous young man and so I took it further than most. Many would quote the verse “we are in the world but not of the world”. I would take it further and quote 2 Timothy 2:4 “”No good soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.”  I followed the Lutheran idea of ‘two kingdoms’ (kingdom of God and kingdom of this world) all the way down.

  • When I became Ordained I not only opted out of Social Security (which ministers are allowed to do in their first two years of filing taxes) but I registered with the Government as an objector.

I am a registered objector. I indicated that what remaining taxes I did pay, I did not want them going to pay for wars … and this was before W was in office (!). I would tell people “I am not political. I am focused on the spiritual realm not the physical. The government takes care of people in this way, I take care of people in a different way. Plus, I don’t want my loyalties in the natural realm to limit my ministry to people in the supernatural.”  It actually worked quite well for me for a time. I was very vocal about my opting out of the system and in my congregation was a eclectic mix of New England Democrats and pre- Fox News Republicans.

Here is why I was thinking about voting for the first time: 

  •  I no longer subscribe to the dualism of natural – supernatural, physical – spiritual, or church – world. I have shed my understanding of Luther’s two kingdoms.  I read Jesus’ admonition about “In the world but not of the world” differently now … and all it took was an introduction to Biblical scholarship and some Roman political history. 
  • Randy Woodley was my mentor in seminary and he would ask me to explain my politics to him and then challenge me that it was incoherent and inconsistent. I play my conversations with him over and over in my head. Once you study colonial history (or even 20th century history) you realize that to be silent in the face of systemic oppression and repressive legislation is to become complicit with the injustice and suffering that the God you claim to serve is so opposed to.
  • I read Martin Luther Kings “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”  and realized that I was one of those white ministers he was talking about being disappointed in and let down by.

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; …Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

  •  The attacks on September 11, 2001 and the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld (and Halliburton) parley into two wars under the false guise of ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ haunts me when I think of how a different administration might have proceeded differently.
  • As one getting their PhD in Religious Education I have become all too aware of the impact of economic and bureaucratic decisions on children’s education. I don’t see how you can know what I know now and not do something so little that can make such a big change for so many.
  • I live in California where we don’t just vote for candidates (which I was still leery about) but we also vote on propositions. Some of these propositions directly impact school budgets and it would be gross neglect to stay silent on them when our public schools are in such desperate shape.
  • The Paul Ryan budget was and is immoral and unimaginable. I was still siting on the fence about voting – even with the whole Tea Party and Occupy movement thing – until Romney’s selection for his Vice Presidential running mate. I have watched the union stuggles in Wisconsin and Chicago, I have listened to the disgusting rhetoric of this latest financial crisis and continueing bailouts of Wall Street and too-big-fail banks… but when Romney picked Ryan … and I had just recorded that interview with Randy Woodley … I was horrified.

 Why I was still hesitating: 

I read Chris Hedges ‘Death of the Liberal Class’ and can not shake the nauseating reality of just how broken our democratic system is. Both candidates are owned by big business and the election (thanks to the Citizens United decision) is a sham.

It seems to me that to participate in a process this corrupt is to somehow be complicit with the immorality and to sanction or validate these compromised actors.

I have gone this long and there is just something in my identity, something about the way that I imagine myself and tell my story that can not conceive of crossing that line – of breaking the seal and entering into this realm. It was the strangest thing to think about.

 In the end: 

Smiley and West is my second favorite podcast in the world (next to the one I am on). No, President Obama did not do so many things that he said he would do the first time (like close Guantanamo) but … he also did some stuff (like health care reform) that was much needed (although I question the for-profit nature of our insurance companies).

I’m still leery about endorsing professional politicians, but in the end I just didn’t know how I can have learned what I have learned about education in the country and not do something that would so greatly impact the young people – and disproportionately young people of color.

After all, I would hate to have the problem of Christopher Reeve that I spoke so harshly against.

 I am interested in any thoughts on my journey and process.  Comments? Questions?  

Democracy, Pentecost, and the Old Testament?

  • Is it possible that democratic desires are present in the Old Testament and I have just never seen them before?
  • Is the de-centering of Pentecost and the empowerment of the people foreshadowed in the Old Testament?
  • Can we say  A) that Pentecost in the undoing of Babel and B) that God’s desire has always been for the voice of authority to reside in the people (multitude) and not in top-down leaders?

Here is why I am asking:

Recently I stumbled on what might be the most interesting reading of Moses at Mirebah I have seen. It comes from the book Emergency Politics by Bonnie Honig (also on Kindle). In it, she is engaging the theology of Franz Rosenzweig – a contemporary and rival to the German (later Nazi) Carl Schmitt who famously said “” Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”

In Numbers chpt 20, Miriam passes away. She had been a prophetess for the people and had challenged Moses’ authority on occasion. Immediately after her passing (this will become important) the people realize that there is no water and press Moses and Aaron for solutions. Moses and Aaron step away from the people to seek God and receive instruction to “take the staff and speak to the rock – it will pour out water before their eyes”.

Moses, as you may remember, doesn’t follow instructions to the ‘T’. He ad libs a little bit.  He does indeed gather the people but then he veers from the plan. He chastises the people and then strikes the rock. Two things happen:

  • water does indeed come out
  • God is displeased with Moses and will not let him enter the land that is promised.

I have preached this passage many times and have read lots of treatments. I am intrigued by this passage and have always been unsettled by one detail in the story, which I have never been able to resolve:

why does the Lord tell Moses to take the staff if he is just going to speak to the rock? Why even mention the staff?

Here is where Honig and Rosenzweig bring a unique reading. The staff represent something magical like sorcery – or the miraculous for the early 20th century. This is a political theology and what is at stake in the suspension of law in emergency conditions. Can a sovereign power suspend law in the same way that  God suspends the laws of physics in order to preform miracles? Leaders, being empowered by God, the thinking goes, could suspend ‘normal’ activity if they determined an exceptional circumstance.

In Honig and Rosenzweig’s hermeneutic the dispersed empowerment of the people (multitude) is the location for God’s will and is intended to be home to the will/voice of the Lord. But, as we know, this responsibility had been too overwhelming and was resisted by the people in selecting Moses as a king type who would speak to God for/instead of them (Exodus 20:19). This was an abdication by the people of what the Lord had desired for them as a people – to be prophets all.

This resistance is reinforced when the voice of the people rises in the absence of water, and Moses (along with his brother Aaron) turn away from the ‘stiff necked people’ and receive instruction to speak to the rock. Moses then, probably importing the top-down authoritarianism of his Egyptian upbringing, disobeys the command to speak and instead, chastises the people and strikes the rock with his staff in an act of magical sorcery. God, though it produces water, reprimands this act, and Moses is disallowed from entering the promised-land with the people.

This event is placed within the historical context, earlier in the passage, where Miriam passed away and immediately the people realized that they had no water and held a council against Moses and Aaron. Miriam’s name alludes to water and she was the sister who placed Moses in the Nile’s water when he was an infant. She had been the only one to challenge Moses’ authoritarian ways and she provided, as a prophetess, a check to Moses’ power. Without her, this reading states, Moses proved he will give the people … “not authentic prophecy, but sorcery.” In not recognizing the predictive prophecy of the people (and Miriam), Moses loses his leadership of the people.

Honig utilizes Rosenzweig’s two types of prayer – one that spontaneously arises in a situational moment, and another that is used by the community and creates an openness or receptivity – to analyze the judicial deliberation surrounding the Bush v. Gore presidential ruling. By imagining that the people could have risen up in expectation of a serious effort to count valuable democratic votes instead of waiting for a Schmittian top-down rule from the authorities. The sovereign power might have been within the people prepared for and receptive to the sign instead of what came from above it – a rupture from beyond them. This expectation is foreshadowed within the Mosaic tradition that one day all of the people would be prophets (like Miriam).

Honig asks if this metaphorical reading (which it expressly is)  is a good model for democratic politics and a comparison of the  “state of legal exception to the divine rule of god”. The people, she says, when bound together can give to themselves the powers of state and can again decide to suspend them when, as a multitude, they are oriented and receptive (having been prepared) to the consequences of such action and what they point toward as a sign.

This, in the end, is the problem with magical thinking! We abdicate our power as the people – to be receptive to and bring forward the voice and will of God – in favor of looking to magically empowered leaders to suspend the rules that govern due to exceptional (or emergency) circumstances and hand down solution (metaphorically) through sorcery.

It makes sense then why the Lord even mentions the staff if Moses is ultimately to speak to the rock. It is a metaphor (symbol) of concentrated power that is present but to be resisted in lue of the prophetic possibility of speaking. In that speaking, which is to be located in the people (multitude) prepared by prayer, that a sign is revealed that points to a greater reality. We never hear that voice if a receptive people continually abdicate that potential to exceptional leaders who are expected to provide magical results.

God’s of use of authoritarian leaders would, in this line of thinking, always be either a temporary measure, a concession, or a deviation from the Lord’s will to have the voice housed in the God’s people.

I started with questions and I will close with one:

  • What kind of effect would a reading like this have the kenosis  of Philippians 2 and that weird conversation in 1 Samuel 8 where the people want a king and God says “trust me, you don’t – you only think you do” ?

the Death of the Liberals is killing us

In chapter 1 of his book Death of Liberal Class, Chris Hedges sketches both the height of the Liberal era in the 19th century and its cataclysmic implosion with the arrival of World War in the 20th. The disillusionment of human evil, aggression, and suffering deflated the optimism of innate human goodness and inevitable progress that Liberalism is founded upon.
To understand the profound impact of Liberalism’s demise, it helps to make sure one understands the difference between Classical Liberalism and it’s contemporary milquetoast descent that slinks around in straw-man form on our 24 hours news cycle.
Hedges explains (pp. 6-7) “Classical liberalism was formulated largely as a response to the dissolution of feudalism and church authoritarianism. … (It) has, the philosopher John Gray writes, four principle features, or perspectives, which give it a recognizable identity. It is :

  • individualist, in that it asserts the moral primacy of the person against any collectivity;
  • egalitarian, in that it confers on all human beings the same basic moral status;
  • universalist, affirming the moral unity of the species;
  • and meliorist, in that it asserts the openended improvability, by use of critical reason, of human life

Both John Cobb (Mainline)  and Clayton Crockett (Radical Political Theology) use very similar formulations in their recent Homebrewed  podcasts. Cobb, by focusing on the demise of the Mainline and Crockett, by focusing on the Evangelical and Religious Right, articulate the monumental shift in the religious-political landscape in the past century.
The Mainline denominations are in a collapse narrative and it makes perfect sense why when one examines both the way liberal thought partnered with power in the 20th Century and the way that conducted itself (largely) within the shifting landscape of post-war realities at home and globalization abroad.

“In a traditional democracy, the liberal class functions as a safety valve. It makes piecemeal and incremental reform possible. It offers hope for change and proposes gradual steps toward greater equality. It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with virtue. It also serves as an attack dog that discredits radical social movements, making the liberal class a useful component within the power elite. But the assault by the corporate state on the democratic state has claimed the liberal class as one of its victims…
The inability of the liberal class to acknowledge that corporations have wrested power from the hands of citizens, that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty have become irrelevant, and that the phrase consent of the governed is meaningless, has left it speaking and acting in ways that no longer correspond to reality. It has lent its voice to hollow acts of political theater, and the pretense that democratic debate and choice continue to exist.”  (pp. 9-10)

We talked yesterday about the fictitious nature of the supposed Left-Right spectrum.  For those of us who participate in christ centered communities and organizations, what does this mean?  While incomplete, here is my little experiment to come up with a game-plan for a start.

  1. We stop using the label ‘Liberal’ generically for anything that is not Conservative… especially to be dismissive.  Liberal is a very specific ethical  framework and it takes quite a commitment to liberal. It is not a default position.
  2. We disavow the left-right , conservative-liberal split as farcical. It doesn’t exist. Obama is a Centrist Democrat. Romney is a Centrist Republican. Any idea that Obama is a radical is ridiculous.* We repent of lazy language & thought.
  3. We wake up as the church that the role the Liberals used to play in the system does not function. There is no moderating or buffering presence to bring a corrective to the system. Thus, participating in the system as-it-now-exists will not fix the system. The corporate hold over every aspect of our political system is pervasive.
  4. We step up as the church in the revelation that government is not going to fulfill the expectation to
  • bring good news to the poor (Economy)
  • restore sight to the blind (Medical)
  • release to the captive  (Legal)
  • lift up the broken hearted (Compassion)

The church can do these things! We have deferred to the political system for too long. We have outsourced our responsibility to society but now live with the remains of the bloated carcass Christendom. With the death of the liberal class resistance to corporate rule and unchecked consumerism is impotent. The Citizen’s United ruling is just one step on long trail … but we know where it leads.
There are churches in every community and there may be no greater existing potential than us! **  I know it sounds dreamy, but in the rest of this series I want to flesh it out. By the end, it might not seem as far-fetched as it does right now.
– Bo Sanders
*Wall Street campaign funding, legalizing assassination, and Guantanamo Bay are your first 3 hints.
**  The danger of course is that we keep voting based on two issues while turning a blind eye to  corporate rule, environmental deregulation, and perpetual war.


This post is the beginning of a new series and was co-posted on Homebrewed Christianity.

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