Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



The Shape of Race

Race is a construct that configures us as humans.

This short sermon talks about how we are knit together as a society.

You can also download the free ‘Whiteness Workshop’ if you are interested.

Let me know if this was helpful or how I can make it better.

Whiteness Workshop

I would like make something available to you that I hope you find helpful.

This is a ‘workshop on whiteness’ that I developed in 2015 and then updated a little bit last year. PDF:  Whiteness Workshop Sanders

If you are interested in learning more about race and specifically the issue of whiteness then I want to be here for you during this important time in our nation’s history.

Let me tell you who I am looking for. Let’s say that there is a whiteness spectrum that goes from Level 1 (white normative – pull your pants up, speak English, don’t give your kids weird names) to Level 10 (Woke AF) then here is how I map that spectrum.

Level 2: not racist but snarky and defensive (they can say the N-word but we can’t?)

Level 3: I want to say Black Lives Matter but doesn’t All Lives include black ones?

Level 4: I get that people are upset but …

Level 5: Can’t we all just get along?

Level 6: Something is really wrong isn’t it?

I am looking for people who are at Level  2, 3, 4, or 5 and want to move to level 6.

  • If you don’t know what POC stands for.
  • If you get told to ‘check your privilege’.
  • If you don’t understand how race could be a ‘construct’.
  • If you think that bringing up race is racist.

Now, if you are more advanced than I am (Woke AF) then I bless you on your journey and say, ‘you know the work that you need to do – get busy – we need you in the struggle’.

Also, if you are Level 1, I am not sure I can help you. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be helped – only that I am not the person to help. It is too close to some bad experiences I had when I was younger and I don’t tend to have the best reactions.

If, however, you are at Level 3 (I want to say that Black Lives Matter) or Level 4 (I get that people are up but …) or Level 5 (Can’t we all just get along?) then I would like to make myself available to you.

I offer you a couple of  things:

  • Read this Whiteness Workshop (35 pages) and keep track of any questions, concerns, or objections that you have.
  • Invite a friend or two to do this exercise with you.
  • Email me any questions you want to ask but don’t feel like you can without getting in trouble.
  • Let me know if a phone call would be preferred and we can set that up.


You may be thinking, “can’t I just ask a person of color that I know?”

Please don’t.

It is not their job to educate us white people or carry our emotional burden. Communities of color have their own work that they are doing right now. Educating ourselves about issues of race and specifically whiteness is our labor right now.

So, if you are intrigued but what I am offering and would identify yourself as within the window on my whiteness scale, then I would truly love to be a resource for you during this time.

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! 

This Week in Whiteness

This is the first installment of what I fear will be an ongoing series.  At the end of the HBC review of the film 12 Years A Slave, I made a case that there is a deep and central ongoing problem related to race in this country – that we don’t quite know how to get at.

Now, some of you may be thinking ‘that is the simplest and most obvious thing I have ever read. Duh!’  and you would be right …

But here is the thing: that is not the problem.

The problem is that there are a near equal amount of people whose response is ‘What? No there is not. Stop making trouble and bringing this up all the time.’PuzzlePiece

The conversation is frustrating because of a complex little piece at the center of the cultural-historical puzzle. The mechanism is two-fold:

  • Many whites know-sense-feel-suspect-intuit that something is wrong but don’t know how to address it.
  • Race issues are supposed to be a thing of the past. You hear sentiments like ” I thought we fixed that whole problem,  I mean  MLK … and the election of Obama and I like Beyonce’s music and Michael Jordan was my favorite basketball player …”

Plus” , I hear this often, “if people wouldn’t make such a big deal about one celebrity who says something they shouldn’t have … if things were not so darn politically correct these days then it would just be one person sharing their opinion – right or wrong“.

If you have read my stuff before, you will know that I am often not that interested in talking about the thing itself (I usually sit back on these hot-button issues and let those closer to the issue handle it as a I read and learn – what I am looking for is patterns that develop).  My concern is usually the thing behind the thing.

Here then is my fear: the issues related to race in N. America are not isolated to a certain generation nor are they limited to celebrities (folks like Paula Deen or the Duck Dynasty crew).

The very nature of whiteness has a built-in mechanism (the privilege) that does not allow itself to see itself (or at least makes it extremely difficult to).

Jemar Tisby does a masterful job in breaking down the complexity of the situation when describes:

What Phil Robertson and others get wrong is how they diagnose the state of race relations in America.  They use external cues like the frequency of a smile, and their personal exposure to overt instances of racism to judge the climate of a culture.  But what some people fail to understand is that there are unwritten rules of conduct when Blacks interact with Whites.

“External cues” can be such a distracting data-set when diagnosing the culture around you.

But of course ‘external cues’ are not the only variable. The larger issue is related to ‘social construction’. Categories like race are constructed socially and all of us are acted-upon by them.

So when Megyn Kelley says that Santa and Jesus are white and that this is historically verifiable … while she is wrong (of course)  – it is not entirely her fault.  I have been reading a fascinating book called The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. It turns out the images of Jesus have a long, complex and troubling history on this side of the Atlantic.  One is almost led to have mercy on Mrs. Kelly for her mistaken notion (joke or not) simply because the images that she would have had available to her formation are in-themselves skewed.

If you want to listen to a fascinating examination of race – and specifically why is can be so difficult to even address the underlying issues, track down a Canadian (CBC) ‘Ideas’ episode called Is Race A Fiction (video)  or download it on I-Tunes (audio).

I hear this sometimes:

“Since race is scientifically unverifiable and we are all part of the human race … why don’t we just stop with all of the talk about race and treat each other like human-beings?”

If only it were that easy. As you will hear in that CBC episode – The problem is that race is now a social and historical category that has been both acted upon and which has formed us (part of our social construction) and that makes it ‘real’ even if it doesn’t actually exist!

In the end, these flareups about the color of Santa or the opinions of guys who make duck calls are not just the death-flalings at the end of a post-racial era. Nor are they the isolated opinions of few backward folks in rural pockets of this continent.
These issues are not soon to disappear nor will they simply go away with time.

There is something deep in the heart of whiteness that is not going anywhere anytime soon. That is why we can not simply ‘let things run their course’ or be passive about the ongoing perpetuation of false categories and attitudes. In fact, the deeper I look into the issue, the deeper and scarier the issue of whiteness appears.

If you want to listen to my chat with Micky Jones about all of this you can find it here.

If you are going to comment- please do me a favor and remember that I am more concerned about the thing behind that thing than I am about the thing itself. 


For further reading:

Whiteness: a critical reader

The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege

After Whiteness: unmasking the american majority

I am going to cross-post this here and at Ethnic Space.

Liberal Question part 3: Music and Whiteness

I think a lot about issues of race, gender and class. I read about it and talk it over with people every week. I am working my way through an expensive program in order to write my dissertation about it.  I care about matters of diversity and justice a great deal. mumford_and_sons

Ever since talking to my mentor, Randy Woodley at Wild Goose West last fall I have been thinking about this a little differently. Then with the happenings of the Emergent Christianity thing in Memphis … I thought I would bring out what I have been whittling away at in my workshop.
This is something I am working on and I would love your constructive feedback. 

The problem isn’t Brian McLaren speaking at a conference.
The problem is if everyone speaking at the conference looks like McLaren.

The problem isn’t reading a book by a white guy.
The problem is only reading books by white guys.*

The problem isn’t having a man speak up front at church.
The problem is if we only hear men speak from up front at church.

You don’t even listen to podcasts! 

Here is what I want to avoid. There was some grumbling on facebook when The Culture Cast was released and it turned out that both Jordan and Christian were white guys. Ironically, almost all the grumbling came from white guys – but that is a different issue.

One female friend said “where are the women podcasters?”

I suggested that since it was a concern of hers … why didn’t she tell us some recommendations.  Why is she asking a question?

She responded that she didn’t listen to podcasts.

I was stunned.

I asked “then why do you care? What difference would it make to you?”

It would be like me complaining their aren’t enough black NASCAR drivers. I don’t watch NASCAR. I don’t even know how many black drivers there are. That reality is irrelevant to my existence.

I think that we need to care deeply about things that we are invested in. There are too many issues that matter for too much for us to get tangled in controversies vicariously.

We don’t except tokens.

We need to be careful of tokenism. Let me be clear on this: if you are group of white people who have organized a conference, already have 10 white speakers lined up and then think ‘we need some color – let’s see if we can get Randy Woodley’ … that is token.  Randy got no say in the direction and organization nor had any power or influence. You just want to put a microphone in his face and have him do his schtick.

Token is an afterthought that serves primarily to help one feel good about being able to check off a box. If Randy was on the organizing committee – trust me the no conference would look the same.

In contrast to ‘token’ let me offer 3 examples:

  • Anthony Smith is an emergent voice and influence. He was in the movement before me and helped bring me in. That is not token. That is influence. Anthony Smith is influential.
  • When Tripp and I organized the Emergent Village Theological Conversation we said “Monica Coleman is our marquee speaker, our cornerstone, our prima donna.” And we did not do anything until she agreed to be our first round draft pick. She got session 1 to start the conference to set the tone and she got session 5 to end the conference so that she had the final word. We built the conference around that structure. We then invited others to come in around her.
  • When we inherited the Phoenix Big-Tent Christianity event many of the speakers were already in place. It was great to have Richard Rohr, Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren to boost ticket sales. But we wanted to highlight some voices that people had not heard a lot before. So, for instance, we structured the actual sessions that one of the ‘marquee’ voices was asking questions of one of the ‘emerging’ voices. For many people, that was the first time they had heard of Rachel Held-Evans. I will never forget watching her debate Marcus Borg about church folks understanding of creation!

I’m with the band. 

Here is my big point:
The problem isn’t that Mumford and Sons are all white guys. We have to look at the way that bands form. It makes sense that the guys of Mumford connect and play.

The problem is if every band on the radio is white guys.

The problem isn’t that Bono is a white guy or that U2 are all white guys.

The problem is if every band on a record label is a bunch of white guys.

We have to learn to distinguish between how a band come together and how the music industry functions.

We also need to do this for church … and for christian conferences.

No conference or podcast is or can be the full expression of the kingdom on earth. It is not nor can it be heaven. It is not supposed to be. Like no band can play every type of music …

I understand our desire for diversity – I just want us to manage our expectations. Our problem isn’t with Mumford and Sons, it’s with the music industry.

The answer isn’t “add a black guy”.  That is not how bands work.
Can you imagine somebody saying “why doesn’t Boys 2 Men have a women in it?” or “why doesn’t Destiny’s Child get Ricky Martin to join?”

The problem then isn’t with any church, podcast, organization, conference or person. Our concern is with how that all comes together in a less-diverse way than we would hope for and desperately need. 

The answer then is not to ‘add a women and stir’ or to ‘get some color’. That is what we call token – and it is insulting to everyone involved.

The need is to examine the bigger picture. This includes how things are planned, who makes decisions, and in what ways can people access resources.

Here is a timely example: Tripp and I are singers and songwriters. Our friends Callid Keefe-Perry and Steve Knight are as concerned about the impact of technology on the church as we are. We have talking about  it whenever we are together. We started this when we lived in 4 different parts of the country. Tomorrow, Steve Night is in town and we are going to record a podcast about the subject.

That is not a problem. We are Mumford, or U2, or The Stones, or the Beatles … we are just a band.
It is not a problem that we sing together – or in this case talk together. The problem comes if we are the only ones you hear.

Just to be clear: 1) I am using this an analogy. 2) I am using the music industry as a positive example.



*If you find yourself in this situation, here are some books suggestions

Quest for the Living God by Elizabeth Johnson

Christ the Key by Catherine Tanner

Teaching Community by bell hooks

Shalom and the Community of Creation by Randy Woodley

Many Colors or The Next Evangelicalism by Soong Chan-Rah

Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation by Andrew Sung Park


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