The Exvangelical Implosion: Lessons For the Fediverse

Let's talk a bit about the Exvangelical community and a recent implosion earlier in the summer the community went through. I think there's some lessons to be learned.

Exvangelicals are, as the name suggests, people that have exited the Evangelical tradition and found each other online. Impressively, at their peak they comprised a nearly even split of “still Christians” and “no longer Christians” (an exceedingly rare feat on the internet when beliefs are centered as part of the group’s identity). There’s a podcast run by one of the group’s founders (Blake Chastain), in which he has guests on to discuss their experience in and outside of the EC church.

The community describes itself as a kind of halfway house for people exiting toxic theology, giving space for people to share their stories and find solidarity. I spent a lot of time in this group during my religious deconstruction, and speaking personally I found it really helpful to have people with common experiences that could empathize with my fear, frustration, anger, and hurt. Early on though there were some warning signs that things weren’t quite right.

First and foremost, the group trended overwhelmingly white. This isn’t completely surprising, given that a large percentage of evangelicals are white, but some black members and mods started speaking out about problems they were having with other members of the group. Coded racism, dismissing of experiences; pretty typical centrist/liberal stuff. They were met with hostility by members of the group, even though the group leaders backed them and stated their commitment to inclusion.

Some people were blocked, rules made more explicit, and after some time had passed these black women decided to come back to the group, every now and again. It seemed the situation had been handled. But I remember feeling unsettled, like something wasn’t quite right. Not just about the casual racism stuff, but also because it felt like the group was treading water. Everyone was talking about the same stuff over and over again. There was no exit strategy from the pain.

Earlier this summer a group of women came forward with a list of grievances against the Exvangelical community. They called themselves “The Magdalene Collective.” The list is gone now, so it’s not possible for me to cite it or even to remember who exactly posted it (I’m sure the victim of this manifesto remembers quite well). But among its assertions it claimed that the Exvangelical community was too white, too male, and too cis, and they basically asserted that the Exvangelical community was ruled by a despot.

Many of the charges seemed to be levied at one of the founders of the group, claiming they were using the Exvangelical community to further their career at the expense of queer people and women of color. This person had a Patreon set up to try and fund a career as a freelance writer, in which they wrote about the dangers of Evangelicalism, in an attempt to give Exvangelicals a stake in the national conversation on religion, domestic terrorism, and the Religious Right. The MC stated that this person wasn't giving enough attention to PoC and queer exvangelicals, and that they were using the Exvangelical platform to get rich.

Then, in one of the many threads that had popped up on Twitter, someone pointed out that the manifesto used TERF language and ideas.

Chrissy Stroop, the target of the manifesto, outed herself as both queer and trans within days of the manifesto being published. She stated that she was doing this under duress to try and save her career and tenuous financial situation, and that she wasn’t really ready to come out yet, but felt she had no choice. She stated that the MC members knew from private group conversations that Chrissy had been questioning her gender for quite some time, and had harassed her privately about being a man. She provided screenshots.

Once this was made clear, the lone woman of color in the MC apologized both privately and publicly to Chrissy and disavowed herself of the MC statement (Chrissy accepted the apology). At that point the entire thing fell apart; any legitimacy the Magdalene Collective statement had was now long gone. But in the interim between these events, the Exvangelical group descended into chaos, with people picking sides, many having never heard of a TERF and having no idea how to identify its dog whistles or the damage it causes.

When the dust settled many people had left the group, a lot of people were traumatized, and both Blake and Chrissy stepped away from the Exvangelical community for extended breaks as they took time to reflect and heal. Most of the signatories of the Magdalene Collective left as well, or were pushed out of the group for the damage they caused and for their continued deception and lack of remorse.

So what happened here? Why did it all go to hell so quickly and what could have been done to prevent it?

Well, despite the absolutely awful way in which these TERFs tried to take advantage of the situation, it’s true that there weren’t enough people of color in the group. From what I saw women were actually quite empowered and given special reverential status in the group, as we all knew how much worse Evangelicalism is to women. We wanted to explicitly flip the power dynamic on its head by elevating their voices.

But still, these women were, by and large, white. That lead to very limited perspectives and really set the group up for a lot of pain.

It’s also true that there was 0 discussion of TERF beliefs prior to this debacle. And while hindsight is 20/20, having someone broach the subject long before there was trouble might have inoculated the group somewhat.

But most importantly I think the entire premise of the group was doomed to fail from the start.

Support groups and survivor’s groups are important to healing from complex trauma, but they are neither a substitute for therapy nor for friendship. In the aftermath of the situation Tori Williams Douglas, one of the former members of the group, started talking frankly about how she had not worked through her issues in therapy yet, and exorted her Twitter followers to stop avoiding dealing with their trauma in therapy by talking with people over social media.

She specifically linked the group's collective trauma to the many issues the group had had over the past year, and started leading by example by talking about some of the things she was learning as she read about trauma and what it does to the brain.

As a former therapist myself, I can tell you that part of the reason support groups have planned endings is because it’s not healthy to keep people in that kind of intensive environment long-term. It has a specific purpose, after which it must end, because to continue it indefinitely leads to negative outcomes. It’s also why therapists often lead these groups; traumatized people have higher fight or flight responses and often need someone to help them work through conflict.

So how does this relate to the fediverse?

Frankly I’m worried for a lot of y’all. I see a lot of the same patterns emerging in the fediverse that I saw in the Exvangelical community. We all need to vent from time to time and I think it’s amazing that we’ve found a group of people that are willing to listen and commiserate. But when 95% of what you talk about is how awful capitalism is, or how cishets suck, or how men or awful, etc, I get worried.

Are you having fun? Do you enjoy the company of the people on your instance even outside talking about your trauma or your frustrations living in a capitalist world? Do you appreciate one another’s presence? Are you friends? Do you have shared interests? If not, I’d urge you to reflect and ask yourself if what you’re doing is healthy. If all you do is drown in yours and the world’s suffering then eventually you will inflict suffering on others.

I love my instance. We’re not perfect by any means, but we found each other because we enjoy games, and Ellie has done a great job of explicitly and purposefully making it a safe place for marginalized people. We vent about capitalism, and racism, and ableism, and transphobia, etc etc. But we always circle around to having fun with each other. And there’s a pretty good sense within the group of when things have gotten too heavy. We don’t even have to say it most of the time.

So I guess what I would distill all this down to is this: forming a group solely for the purpose of being against something is not healthy. It’s necessary from time to time, but in the long term I have never seen a group like this not become toxic. If your community is centrally defined by a negative trait, I’d urge you to have some conversations about what you can create together. What things can you celebrate? What things spark joy for you? What can you do right now to improve the lives of the people within this circle, in affirming and non-judgmental ways?

If your community isn’t interested in that conversation, then for your own health I’d encourage you to find another community. There’s heartbreak on the horizon, if it hasn’t happened already.

I’d also gently remind everyone that most of us need therapy. We’re a pretty traumatized bunch, and while that’s 100% not our fault, we also have a responsibility to deal with our shit so we don’t hurt other people.

Most abusers were abused themselves at some point.

Obviously that’s not financially possible for all of us at all times… but find a way to do some kind of work on yourself, if you haven’t already. You deserve it, and your friends do too.