Category Archives: religion

Theonomy

I recently finished reading a book, “No Other Standard: Theonomy and its Critics” and have been thinking about it ever since. Theonomy is the belief, among some Christian theologians, that Moaic law, indeed all the laws in the Bible, should be followed to the letter. There is no room for interpretation or for believing that certain laws are outdated and can no longer be followed in a modern society. There are think tanks, seminaries, churches, and many individuals committed to this idea. One of the best known organizations is the Chalcedon Foundation.

This group is focused on “rebuilding the theological foundations of Christian civilization.” This foundation believes that humanism and secularism have ruined the world and if only the whole world would accept what they believe, then we would have a great civilization.

When I first started reading the book, I was looking for some logical inconsistency, some reason for why theonomy didn’t make sense, some way to demolish the arguments. I couldn’t. Every question I had, every objection I could make was answered.

Does this mean I was converted to the theonomic worldview? No. The reason is simple. You have to accept a few basic premises. Once you accept those premises, then I think you must accept theonomy. The premises are as follows:

  1. The Bible is the inerrant word of God.
  2. Human reason can be used to interpret and understand God’s word, but not to question it.
  3. The Old Testament laws must be followed, unless they are specifically rescinded in the New Testament.

If you accept these premises, then you must accept the conclusion. I do not accept the premises, therefore I cannot accept the premise.

  1. While the Bible may be divinely inspired, this is the most that I am willing to grant. The Bible is a flawed document, written by men and women who were trying to express their stories and their ideas as best they could. But, I have trouble believing that the Bible is absolutely without fault and is the direct word from God.
  2. Human reason, whether it’s a gift from God or a byproduct of evolution, is a wonderful tool, flawed and limited, but always capable of pushing the limits further and further. We should use our reasons to fully understand and even question our faith and the faith of others. We cannot simply accept that a divine being has provided us all the answers, but must investigate it for ourselves.
  3. This only makes sense in the context of premise 1. Otherwise, if you look at the Old Testament in a historical context, some of the laws make sense for that time period but simply do not apply to our modern times. I simply cannot abide by the idea that homosexuals should be killed, among other laws.

I may be wrong and the Bible may be the inerrant word of God, in which case I would have to accept theonomy. But, I don’t think I am.

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A reply to Archbishop Naumann

I recently read Archbishop Naumann’s on theleaven.org. In it, he criticizes Tim Kaine for holding a personal opposition to abortion even as he legislates as a pro-choice candidate and senator. I think the abortion debate in this country is generally pretty ugly and dominated by religious reasoning. I am pro-choice for a few reasons, one of which is that even if abortion was criminalized, abortions would still happen. However, they would be much more dangerous, hidden, and committed without any regard for the life of the mother. I also take issue with some of the typical arguments used by pro-life advocates, namely that every human life is sacred and must be protected at all costs. And, no, this does not make me “pro-abortion”, a terrible slander that is used to portray pro-choice advocates as heartless murderers. Believing abortion should be legal, and hoping that abortion would never be needed are not contradictory.

If you are religious and you are pro-life because you believe that is what God wants, then you may as well stop reading. How can human reason compare with God’s? I don’t have an argument against religious reasons for opposition to abortion, because nothing can be said to overcome a sincerely held religious belief. I do not have religious reasons for being pro-choice, and so I am fully committed to weighing arguments on both sides and deciding what I think best. Thus far, I have decided that the pro-choice argument makes more sense to me, but I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise.

Anyway, to Archbishop Naumann. He states that Senator Kaine stated all the usual “made-for-modern-media sound bites” and then listed two sentences that are perfectly reasonable and another one that has only come up because Donald Trump made an ill-advised comment.

  1. “It is not proper to impose his religious beliefs upon all Americans.”
    • Since when is this a sound-bite? This has been a fundamental principle since our founding.
  2. “He trusts women to make good reproductive choices.”
    • Should we not trust people to make their own reproductive choices? Again, if you are a strict Catholic (or other strict Christian), then you believe that there is no option other than procreative sex and nothing else, but that is a choice that each individual makes. When, how, and with whom to have sex are personal questions that each person has to answer. This statement again, does not seem unreasonable.
  3. “Do we really want to criminalize and fill our jails with post-abortive women?”
    • Donald Trump said that there should be some type of punishment for women who seek an abortion. He later walked it back and I think that he simply thought it was in keeping with what pro-life people wanted to hear, but the vast majority of pro-life people have never wanted to jail women who seek an abortion, so this is being used as a scare tactic by Democrats to whip up votes.

The Archbishop then proceeds to talk about how Senator Kaine has no problem imposing his religious beliefs with regard to “the church’s opposition to racism or our preferential treatment for the poor.” While it is true that the Church has recently embraced these things, it has not always been the case. The Church has embraced racism at various times (slavery, anti-Semitism, to name two instances) and their treatment of the poor has been uneven. Should the Church not do as Jesus commanded and sell all they have and give it to the poor? I imagine St. Peter’s Basilica could house, clothe and feed a lot of poor people. Or is the Archbishop advocating to remove the tax-free treatment that churches receive, so that those tax dollars can be used to better fund anti-poverty measures?

“He appears not to be conflicted with our public policies mirroring the Ten Commandments with regard to stealing, perjury or forms of murder, other than abortion.” You do not have to be religious to understand that stealing, perjury, and murder are  harmful to society. Does Archbishop Naumann really believe that people were constantly murdering, stealing, and lying before the Ten Commandments were revealed? Of course not, Adam and Even never would have made it out of Eden if this were so.

“Our founders actually believed that the right to life is given to us by our Creator, not the Supreme Court.” The founders also believed that you could be deprived of life, liberty, and property under our laws. So, the right to life is not an absolute right. Additionally, the founders also believed in slavery and that women were inferior, so perhaps we shouldn’t assume that just because the founders thought it, it must be right.

“[A]t the moment of fertilization a new human life has begun with his or her own distinct DNA.” While the biology of this is technically correct, why the emphasis on human life? What makes a fertilized human egg a life worth protecting? This gets into a fundamental philosophical question about what life is worth saving. Most people would agree that all human life is worth saving, until we get into the details. If we try to look at particular cases of horrible people, then we may not agree that all human life is worth saving, such as rapists, murderers, enemy combatants in war, etc. Now, you could try to make an innocence argument, that the humans in the womb are necessarily innocent. Depending on what Christian doctrine you subscribe to, you may believe that all humans are stained with sin from conception, tainted and therefore not innocent. Looked at in this way, babies in a womb are no more innocent than the rapist. I personally think this is ridiculous and would be a sign of a horribly unjust God.

“Does anyone really have the choice to end another human being’s life? Our choices end where another individual’s more fundamental rights begin.” This is a climax of the argument and meant to be a final blow to anyone who could disagree with the author. However, we can follow this down to its logical conclusion and end up in a pretty terrifying place. First, the state and the military clearly have the choice to end another human being’s life. Both of those groups do it all the time. Before we quibble about how those are organizations and not ‘people’, let’s be clear that people have to perform the action. An executioner has to perform the execution. The state did not kill someone, a person did. The military as an organization did not kill an opposing army’s soldier, our soldier did it with a gun (or drone).

If we follow the choices argument, then we need to think much more carefully about our choices. Do you have a smartphone? Then you took away someone’s fundamental rights as the enslavement and horrific working conditions of people manufacturing these smartphones has been well documented. Did you spend money eating out, when you could have donated that money to the poor and potentially prevented someone from starving to death? Did you invite a homeless person into your home to stay warm on a freezing winter night? If not, then you may very well have made a choice that killed someone. Nobody would ever hold you personally responsible for these deaths, but we cannot simply say that we cannot make a choice that ever infringes on someone else’s rights. We would be left unable to take any action.

“[G]uilt and unresolved grief that inevitably resolves from abortion.” I take issue with the qualifier “inevitably”. This is saying that every abortion results in grief and guilt and I am sure that is not the case. You can easily find stories of women who chose to have an abortion and do not regret it or feel grief.

There is a long paragraph about how Senator Kaine has imposed his beliefs on others by forcing religious institutions to provide contraception, which is false, put florists out of business if they don’t support gay marriage, which is partially true, and force every American to fund abortions. To all of these I say, you live in a society and part of the social contract is that you have to abide by certain rules. Religious institutions can simply say they don’t want to provide contraception and they don’t have to. Florists and other businesses cannot discriminate. If you want to discriminate, don’t start a business. Our tax dollars go to support a lot of things that you or I don’t agree with. But, this doesn’t mean that you get to stop paying taxes. Taxes are the price you pay for living in a society.

Lastly, the author gives an endorsement for Donald Trump without mentioning him by name. I can understand how Christian conservatives cannot vote for or support Hilary Clinton. I get it. But to endorse Donald Trump cedes any moral high ground that you may have had. I’ve been considering leaving the presidential ticket blank and simply voting for all of the down-ballot races. This seems perfectly legitimate. Trump and Clinton are both flawed, but Trump is much more flawed and dangerous than Clinton.

This was a long post and I’m sure some people will be angry and others may agree with me. Again, I want us to think rationally about abortion. It’s an issue worth talking about and I am willing to admit I may be wrong. However, if you want to say, “God says x, y and z”, then I don’t really have anything to say. God may indeed say all those things and maybe after we die, we’ll find out what the truth is.

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The Supreme Court Dissent: We should take it seriously (even if it’s wrong)

There’s been a great deal of hand-wringing and flag-waving over the Supreme Court decision affirming the right for all people to be married, regardless of sexual orientation. On the conservative right, it has been lamented as the end of civilization, the end of democracy, a legal apocalypse on the scale of Roe v. Wade. The more liberal left has viewed this as a great victory and another step in the onward march of progress. I think both characterizations are overwrought.

However, I want to focus on a couple of issues brought up in the dissent and the issue of same-sex marriage more generally.
1. The end of democracy: How many times have we heard it said, “Five unelected judges have decided…”. I am both mystified and compelled by this statement. One the one hand, it does seem as though 5 people have decided to “find” a new right in the Constitution that was not there previously. Considering that those 5 people cannot hope to represent all 320 million Americans, it is very undemocratic that they decided that same-sex couples have the right to marry when numerous states and elections have shown that there are large groups of people that do not believe in same-sex marriage. On the other hand, is the will of the people always paramount or absolutely right? How much better would we be if the Supreme Court had decided differently in the Dred Scott case, or Plessy v. Ferguson, even though public opinion largely supported them in those decisions? On a side note, our country is not a democracy, we are a federal republic. You elect a representative to act on your behalf. Those representatives (namely the President and the Senate) nominate and confirm appointees to the Supreme Court, so while the Supreme Court justices are technically unelected, they have to go through a rigorous process to be appointed, and they do have a tenuous link to “we the people”.

2. The “discovery” of a new right: According to both sides of the issue, SCOTUS found, discovered, or created a brand new right last week, the right to get married and that right cannot be interfered with by the government. On the face of it, this seems deeply troubling. What if SCOTUS discovers I suddenly have the right to have water, heat, and internet? Could I simply stop paying my bills and argue that I still have a right to received those services? We generally equate rights with freedom, in fact, Americans talk about rights all the time. I have a right to stand here, I have a right to do this, I have the right to not speak, or to speak loudly, etc., etc. Judging by all of our talk of rights, you might think that the discovery of new rights is a good thing! But, what about inalienable rights? Is SCOUTS discovering rights that have always been there, they’ve just been hidden? Or, are they truly creating new rights out of thin air? If that’s the case, then can our supposedly inalienable rights be taken away just as quickly as they were given to us? To be clear, I tend to think that all of our rights are mischaracterized. We have no rights as humans, we only have privileges granted to us by whatever government we are subject to.

3. The slippery slope: Same-sex marriage will lead to polygamous marriages. We should all be wary of a slippery slope argument as it tends (by definition) to be fallacious. However, related to the above paragraph, what is to stop the Court from discovering that I have a right to marry two women? Or the right to marry a man and a woman? And so on, ad infinitum. First, I don’t necessarily see the issue with drawing the line at marriage between 1 person and 1 other person. Second, why do we think polygamy is a bad thing? It is, after all, Biblically based. Third, can’t the religious freedom argument cut both ways? If you have a sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between 1 man and 1 woman, and I have a sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between 1 man and 10 women, then why should you be allowed to exercise your belief and I cannot exercise mine?

4. Marriage is for children: I cannot underestimate how often I have seen this in recent days, that marriage is primarily for child bearing and rearing. Marriage centered around the child makes sense since society in general has a vested interest both in reproducing and in ensuring that children are well cared for. However, I have two misgivings about this view. First, does this mean that we should exclude from marriage people who either cannot or will not reproduce? If you are elderly, or have some congenital defect that prevents reproduction, does that mean that we should prohibit your marriage? What if you want to reproduce before you get married and then find out your partner is unable to have children? Is it your societal responsibility to divorce that person and then marry again? There seems to be some stigma attached to young couples who choose to not procreate. Conservatives connect Roe v Wade with this decision here and say that SCOTUS is only concerned with sexual pleasure without consequences. We hate children and young people don’t want them because they would interfere with our pleasure, sexual and social. Thank you for thinking so little of Millennials…Second, it seems that an exclusive focus on children can backfire. Do we suddenly prevent people who would produce “genetically inferior” children from procreating, in the interest of bettering society? Do we treat couples without children as less than couples with children? Do we treat couple who adopt as less than couples who bear children? Why does “1 mother, 1 father” mean so much to raise healthy, good children? If I die, is my wife obligated to go out and get remarried so my daughter can have a father?

5. The loss of religious freedom: More than anything, this decision has been heralded as the end of religious freedom in America. Firstly, I am disturbed by the silencing of critics related to this decision and others. The idea that we will stifle and suppress discourse that we don’t agree with is terrifying. While I agree that the expansion of gay marriage is a good thing, I disdain the idea that I would shout at everyone who disagrees. In general, it seems as though our culture is in the middle of a huge expansion of stifling disagreeable thoughts and opinions. From the firing of tenured professors (Salaita) to the use of Title IX proceedings to suppress faculty on campuses, to the use of trigger warnings in college syllabi, to the harassment of people who are simply trying to voice their disagreement with the majority, we too often criticize and browbeat others into submission. That being said, if you are mocked publicly by others, if you own a business that people stop patronizing because of your personal views, if you are fired from a private company because of things you’ve said, if your friends desert you because of your political ideas, your first amendment rights have not been abridged or infringed. The government cannot prosecute you for your opinions or thoughts, but society can attach a stigma to you due to your opinions or thoughts. Do not assume that the first amendment protects you from persecution, it only protects you from prosecution.

Anyway, religious freedom. Perhaps I am misinformed, but I have not seen anything stating that clergy are being forced to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples. If you work at the county clerk’s office and a same sex couple comes to get a marriage license, then you are legally obligated to do it, as an agent of the government. This is what the separation of church and state means. It’s not the silly little things, like whether we can or should pray before a town hall meeting, it’s the fact that as an agent of the government, acting on behalf of the government, you are obligated to perform your legal duty, and not let your religious beliefs interfere. If a polygamous Mormon works at the county clerk’s office, they cannot simply hand out polygamous marriage licenses, because they are illegal, no matter what their religious beliefs are. You can spend all the time you like, outside of your duties in government, advocating for your beliefs. If you truly cannot bring yourself to separate your religion with your legal obligation, then, perhaps a government job is not for you. I’m not saying all conservatives should quit government. Government, just like the private sector, needs diversity, and I include ideological diversity in that, and I hope that there are people out there that will comply with the law, while continuing to exercise their right to advocate to overturn the ruling or convince Americans that the ruling was wrong.

This was a very long post, and I certainly did not cover all the possible issues with the ruling. Again, I believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to be married, and I am pleased by the ruling. But, I do not think that the dissenting judges are “evil” or stupid. Let’s take their dissent, and the cultural dissent more broadly, seriously and engage with the ideas and what it means for us as a nation. What precedent does this set, outside of legalizing same sex marriage? Our public sphere of discourse relies on us engaging with ideas with which we disagree and weighing those ideas against the evidence prevented before us.

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Open Letter to the Editor of the Alestle

The Alestle is the student newspaper of my alma mater, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. I read a distasteful op-ed the other day and decided to respond. The article I am responding to is here. That op-ed was actually a response to another op-ed here. The text of my reply is below.

I was dismayed to read Jeffrey Elliot’s letter regarding homosexuality and Christianity. While I agree that the Bible does condemn homosexuality and this is something that modern Christians have to deal with, the Bible also condones a lot of reprehensible behavior.

What about the passages allowing for slavery and the beating of slaves? (Leviticus 25:44-46,Exodus 21:2-6, 1 Timothy 6:1-2) How about the passages appearing to condone genocide? (Deuteronomy 2:34, Joshua 6:21, Exodus 32)

Would Elliot really have us believe that Christians who don’t believe in Bible-sanctioned slavery and genocide are not true Christians? The wonderful, and terrible, thing about religions is that their holy texts can be used to justify almost anything you want. This is always going to be the case whenever humans are allowed to read a text and use their own judgment. Some read the Bible and find that the overarching theme is one of love and kindness from God. Others read a vengeful, spiteful, mass-murdering God. Which interpretation is right?

It seems that most modern Biblical interpreters treat the Bible literally. This is why there are people who believe the earth is 6,000 years old, there really was a worldwide flood that killed everybody except for Noah and his family, and the entire human race came from 2 people. Is any of this really believable in the literal sense?

Religion is a source of comfort, strength, and morality for billions of people. Calling someone a hypocrite because they read a text differently than you is not going to accomplish anything but to harden divisions between social conservatives and liberals, between religious people and atheists.

Even if we do acknowledge that there are disgraceful passages in the Bible, what is to prevent a Christian from removing those passages that offend? If you believe that the Bible was written by men (and women) who may have been divinely inspired but still able to get the message wrong, what is the issue with removing offensive passages? Entire passages and books have been added or deleted from the Bible through history. How are we to know that the Bible that we are reading is the literal word of God?

Religions can be dangerous in all sorts of ways, but before we condemn all religious people as hypocrites, let’s work to help more Christians be like Dani Wilson, willing to acknowledge that there are verses that condemn homosexuality, but the verses that ask Christians to not judge and love one another are more important.

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The Essential Plotinus

Plotinus was a neo-Platonic philosopher during the Roman Empire (born 204/5 CE). His works are extremely important in developing the history of Platonic philosophy. Of course, Plato inspired Plotinus and inspired works by Christianity, and you can see Plato very clearly in Plotinus and Christianity.

For instance, the idea of a perfect unified God looks remarkably like the Plotinus’ concept of the One. A perfect being that is beyond being in some ways, a being greater than that which can be imagined. Sound familiar? The Christian God is usually portrayed as absolutely unified, perfect, transcendent, so far beyond and above any human endeavor that it is impossible to even consider with our mere human brains.

Plotinus’ writings were rather obtuse. I’m not sure if he was being intentionally difficult or if he was trying to really go further than Plato in getting deeper into what these transcendent forms can be. Plato is relatively easy to read (at least most of his dialogues) while Plotinus is not. However, if Plotinus is trying to add something to Plato, I can understand why his writing is difficult to understand because how can you add to what Plato said? It has often been said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.

One thing that struck me with Plotinus and connects with Plato and with Stoicism is the idea that the purpose of being human is simply to contemplate, to think, to use your reason. These philosophers believe that what sets us apart from animals is that we have reason and can go beyond our instinct. This is what truly sets us apart and so what makes us a better human being is to live a life of reason and rationality.

While many people may agree with this if it is clarified, I am not sure that people consciously think about it (ironically). It is difficult to imagine a person who simply does not think throughout their day, but how many people do you know who seem to merely go through life by following their urges. I’m hungry, so I’ll eat. I’m thirsty so I’ll drink, etc. After you get home from work, you just want to “veg out” so you simply watch TV or play on social media. How often do we truly exercise our mind and try to expand our horizons?

Perhaps a way to start would be to read some Plotinus.

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Rhetoric vs. Knowledge

Politicians and evangelical preachers have two things in common; they almost never stop talking about God, and they talk a lot without saying anything of value. I heard someone speak recently and within about 3 to 5 minutes, I already knew the ending, because it was basically content-less. Within 5 minutes, I already knew that I didn’t need to listen anymore.

There seems to be a general problem in our discourse, and if I had to sum it up, it would be that people mistake rhetoric for knowledge. Let me define these terms first. By rhetoric, I mean speaking well. Public speaking is a skill, and a valuable one at that. I don’t want anyone to think I disdain people who speak well. However, some people focus solely on speaking well that they lose sight of the greater point of speaking. If you are placed in a position where you are able to speak to large groups of people and those people generally respect your opinion, or at least respect you enough to listen to what you have to say, then it seems to me that you have a responsibility to respect your listeners by providing them with something new to think about, some new fact or opinion with which we can agree or disagree. Public speaking should encourage further conversation, not end it.

Knowledge is, to my mind, greater than mere information. Knowledge involves more than the recitation of facts, but also the weaving together of a narrative to make sense of those facts. This too, requires skill. While rhetoric may help people learn how to vary their tone, their pace, their rhythm and cadence, knowledge (and the imparting of that knowledge) requires different skills, intellectual skills. Put frankly, a moron can be gifted at rhetoric, while a brilliant person could be a terrible rhetorician. Why does this matter? Paying attention to rhetoric without focusing on content is pernicious to any society.

Every culture or discipline has its buzzwords. Christianity (especially evangelicals) have words like ‘saved’, ‘grace’, ‘Christ-centric’, and so on. Politics has ‘death tax’, ‘tax and spend’, ‘middle class’, etc. Simply speaking these words makes it sound as though you are talking about something real. It sounds as though you belong to the club and it sounds as though you have something important to say. But really, you could simply be repeating some rote phrases and allowing your audience to fill in the gaps with their own ideas. Then, we cease to question our rhetoricians because they said the phrases we expected them to say, instead of looking for some new ideas or opinions.

I sympathize with both evangelical preachers and politicians. Both of them have to keep the faithful happy. Both have to adhere to a certain orthodoxy at risk of being kicked out of the tribe. But, if we are being honest with ourselves and with our spiritual and political leaders, we would hold them accountable to higher standards and focus on whether they have anything worth saying, not on whether their delivery was nice.

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“Christian Materiality” by Caroline Walker Bynum

This monograph is a return, of sorts, for me to my first passion in history, that of iconoclasm and the problem of religious images. Bynum does a remarkable job of commenting on and describing some of the finer points of the medieval Christian practice of icon-worship and the unique way in which Christianity dealt with material objects.

Everything we see has been created by God and yet the flesh and worldly objects are evil and used by the devil. So goes the thinking of many Christians, past and present. Matter and material objects are a paradox and Bynum explicitly talks about this paradox throughout the book. How are Christians to reconcile this? Bynum argues that it is largely a question that goes unanswered, or at the very least that context matters more than anything else. When a consecrated host bleeds, it could be showing that it is alive and well, therefore eternal (aka good) or it could be surviving an attack by a Jew (also showing its eternality, but for a bad reason, not necessarily for a good one).

The idea of material objects being alive, having some sort of power may seem strange to us today, because we generally treat objects with disdain, to be used today and thrown away tomorrow. But, there are some objects, mainly religious objects that people view with some sort of reverence. Even if one does not believe that the object will begin spontaneously bleeding or in some other way show its life, many do treat objects as though they were more than mere matter.

And yet, this is not quite what Bynum has in mind when she describes Christian veneration of objects. It is not merely that the image or object represents or symbolizes something, but that the object actually becomes that which it represents. One can see that this can be very problematic for theologians. To claim that a statue of Mary is Mary?!

I have argued that iconoclasm was a response to the objects as objects of power. That icons were destroyed and defaced in a very systematic way in response to a feeling that the object had some sort of power that had to be nullified. There are examples of iconcolasts taking an object out of the church to destroy it elsewhere, only to bring the object back and place it unharmed back in the church. Why would they have done this? Perhaps they felt that the object itself had some sort of power that would harm the iconoclasts or would prevent the object from being harmed in the first place? There’s not as much documentary evidence as we would hope, but it seems clear that there was more than mass violence and hysteria when it came to Protestant iconoclasm. I think Bynum’s work provides some evidence for this, even though her work does not deal with the issue in any great detail.

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