Why I have empathy for Karen Swallow Prior

This article originally appeared at Baptist News Global on July 5, 2023.

“I’ve been struggling with regret lately, specifically in feeling like I wasted my whole academic career (given how things have turned out),” tweeted Karen Swallow Prior three months after resigning from the faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

When she announced her retirement in March, Prior cited “the politics of institutional life in the SBC” as a reason why she wouldn’t be returning to Southeastern in the fall.

Karen Swallow Prior

As the semester ended and the dust began to settle, Prior reflected on her career as a professor. She confessed she was experiencing “generally just a long bout of feeling sorry for myself, for sure, as I question everything.”

Prior hasn’t shared the details of how she was affected by those politics behind the scenes. But given the SBC’s focus on women teaching, and the hidden battles in Christian higher education and the social-media-driven politics of the SBC, one can only imagine what her private questions may be.

No matter what she may feel comfortable sharing publicly, many Christians across the theological spectrum resonate with her reflection, questioning and wrestling.

Prior, progressives and the power politics of the SBC

When former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson said a 16-year-old’s body was “built,” Prior joined an effort by Southern Baptist women to write a letter calling him out.

“That letter was 3,000 women saying the emperor has no clothes,” she said at the time. “And I think it just simply sent notice that the gig was up.”

One might wonder, based on her speaking truth to power through the years, if she is secretly a progressive Christian. But Prior remains committed to conservative theology and pro-life politics, despite the conservative men who have hurt her.

“She shares a common wound with us — the wound of being dismissed and demonized by powerful men.”

So while Prior’s theological wonders may differ from progressive Christians and ex-evangelicals who lean to the left, she shares a common wound with us — the wound of being dismissed and demonized by powerful men.

A reminder of my own history with conservative evangelicalism

The gift of Prior’s vulnerability in sharing her regret is that it’s a reminder for all of us about our own similar wounds. Our neighbor’s pain is a window into our own struggle.

After I left the independent fundamental Baptists in 2000, I served for the next two decades in conservative evangelical, complementarian Calvinist churches.

Continue reading at Baptist News Global.

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