American Carnage and Other Thoughts on the Day

He seems to imagine himself the Tribune of the People.  The speech reminded me of Julius Caesar.

At first I found the speech frightening, and then, the more I considered it, I realized that once again he had demonstrated that he is a petty, sad, little man.

Most new presidents look like they are having a good time.  He looked sour and impatient.  

Today I heard one commentator say that not only is he the first president never to be in politics or the military, but in his professional life he has never been part of an institution, because being a family business, he never had a board or stockholders to be responsible to.

In a strange way, both the elections of 2008 and 2016 were repudiations of the party and policies of George W. Bush.

It will be interesting to watch his relationship with the Congressional GOP.  Also interesting to watch what political realignment may follow.

The Party of Lincoln is now the party of populist, nativist, nationalism?  Really?

Populist nationalism was long a cancer in the Democratic Party.  They finally ridded themselves of that cancer, only to have the GOP decide to exploit those folk for decades.  Now those folk have revolted against their exploitation.  The Republican Party has now fully given itself over to something antithetical to who it once was.

But how does his Cabinet fit the speech?  For instance, Carl Icahn, one of the new special advisors, is one of those folk who has spread carnage in industrial America.


Henry McNeal Turner

Henry-McNeal-Turner

The first person that Gary Dorrien focuses on his book The New Abolition is Henry McNeal Turner, a leading figure in the AME Church and an outspoken voice of black nationalism.  Turner was a pioneer of the blackness of God.  He argued that African-Americans could not be self-respecting and not believe in a black God.  Better to be atheists.

He had been a legislator in the early days of Reconstruction but lost hope in America as Reconstruction was abandoned.  He wrote, defending the contributions of African-Americans to American culture:

We have pioneered civilization here; we have built up your country; we have worked in your fields, and garnered your harvests, for two hundred and fifty years!  And what do we ask of you in return?  Do we ask you for compensation for the sweat our fathers bore for you--for the tears you have caused, and the hearts you have broken, and the lives you have curtailed, and the blood you have spilled?  Do we ask retaliation?  We ask it not.  We are willing to let the dead past bury its dead; but we ask you, now, for our RIGHTS.

 Gives us some perspective to note that Turner wrote the obituary for the Republican party of abolition and civil rights in 1877, saying it was "slaughtered in the house of its friends" when it abandoned Reconstruction.  Though Turner gave up hope that America do anything but get worse for African Americans, so he advocated that people should disrupt the system "Vote any way in your power to overthrow, destroy, ruin, blot out, divide, crush, dissolve, wreck, consume, demolish, disorganize, suppress, subvert, smash, shipwreck, crumble, nullify, upset, uproot, expunge, and fragmentize this nation, until it learns to deal justly with the black man.  This is all the advice I have to give."


Recovering the Black Social Gospel

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Having read the very white Religion of Democracy, my next theology book is The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel by Gary Dorrien.  The covers the development of African-American theology after the Civil War and before the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.  Dorrien feels that this movement has been overlooked and that it should be recovered.  One reason is that these are the historical and theological influences on King and leaders of that generation.  Here is a good summary from the opening chapter:

The black social gospel arose during the trauma and abandonment of Reconstruction, resuming the struggle for black freedom in America.  Like the white social gospel and Progressive movements, it espoused principles of social justice, conceived the federal government as an indispensable guarantor of constitutional rights, struggled with industrialization and economic injustice, and grappled with the Great Migration.  Like the white social gospel, it also wrestled with modern challenges to religious belief. But the black social gospel addressed these things very differently than white progressives did, for racial oppression trumped everything in the African American context and refigured how other problems were experienced.

The black social gospel affirmed the dignity, sacred personhood, creativity, and moral agency of African Americans and responded to racial oppression.  It asked what a new abolitionism should be and what role the churches should play within it.  Like the white social gospel, it had numerous ideologies and theologies, but here the trump concern was distinctly given, obvious, and a survival issue: upholding black dignity in the face of racial tyranny.  Here the belief in a divine ground of human selfhood powered struggles for black self-determination and campaigns of resistance to white oppression.

Dorrien details four versions of the black social gospel.  First was the Booker T. Washington group that sought "a season of peace and economic opportunity for blacks."  The second was the "path of nationalist separation and/or African emigration."  The third group engaged in protest action and called for "a new abolitionist politics of racial and social justice."  The final group "advocated civil rights activism while relating more diplomatically to Booker Washington and Bookerism."


The Virtues of the Old Establishment

What I miss about [George H. W.] Bush is that, while he had no program, and no principles beyond his bromides about service and patriotism, those bromides contained valuable ideas. Namely, that competence, the public good, and integrity matter, regardless of the party in power or the details of the legislation being debated. That there are rules and expectations of decency, which everybody ought to follow.

This essay for First Things celebrates the virtues of the old establishment.  There are significant things I disagree with in this article, including some of its criticisms of the elder Bush, who any reader of this blog knows I admire.  But I agree with the essays defense of the old civic and patriotic virtues, which I believe I was raised with and was taught in public school and church.

Unfortunately the author diagnoses our current situation-- "our politics has become absurdly high-stakes, even as character has been entirely devalued. There is no room for a politics of character that is not deformed by ideology and partisanship."

But, similar to what I've been writing in the last few months, he believes that a return to these virtues is the only viable path forward, as he concludes:

 But all sides can learn from Bush to set up standards of behavior and decency that cross ideological and party lines. We can treat each other as fellow citizens, even if we have very different political beliefs. We can try to hold all politicians to the same standards. We can build a cross-party understanding of decency. And we could do worse than to start with some bromides about service and patriotism.


Beinart on Trump Foreign Policy

In the Atlantic Peter Beinart discusses how Trump breaks with America's foreign policy orthodoxy that it is our missionary duty to defend freedom around the world.

The discussion then goes to what will be the Democratic response.  Will they become the party of orthodoxy or will their left wing become dominant?  

I liked the contrast drawn in this final paragraph:

Trump wants America to be a “normal country” like China, which focuses on its own economic and civilizational interests. Liberal Democrats want America to be a “normal country” like Sweden, which helps solve common problems, but without telling the rest of the world what to do.


Epic Scale

Epic Scale

Isaiah 49:1-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

15 January 2017

 

      

 

    Have you ever been discouraged? Exhausted? Maybe even defeated? Then today's scripture reading is for you! Here the servant of God feels like a failure. "I have labored in vain," the servant complains. How does God respond? Hear now this word from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

 

Isaiah 49:1-13

 

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother's womb God named me.
God made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of God's hand I was hidden;
God made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver God hid me away.

 

And God said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
But I said, "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God."
And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be the Lord's servant,
to bring Jacob back to God,
and that Israel might be gathered to the Lord,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
God says,
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

 

Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and her Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers,
"Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."

 

Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, "Come out,"
to those who are in darkness, "Show yourselves."
They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for the One who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.
And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
and my highways shall be raised up.
Lo, these shall come from far away,
and lo, these from the north and from the west,
and these from the land of Syene.

 

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted the people,
and will have compassion on the suffering ones.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

    Did you hear God's answer to the servant who thinks she is a failure? God says,

 

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel;

I will give you as a light to the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

 

    The servant was supposed to restore Israel and so far had not succeeded. God doesn't, then, take back the call. God expands it. The servant had set her sights too low. She really ought to save the entire world.

    What's going on here? Doesn't sound all that pastoral. Imagine a scenario like this. Someone's new to the church and I ask them to organize a pizza party for the youth. The pizzas all end up burned and half the youth get food poisoning from the salad. The person comes to me feeling like a failure and I tell them I'm nominating them for moderator. Why would God give this servant such anxiety?

    Because God knows we are each powerful and glorious. God knows that because God made us. God knows we are capable of amazing things. Even saving the world.

    Scholar Stephanie Paulsell writes about this passage in Isaiah, "Surely this is the song God sings to each of us: that all of our work, no matter how local, must have the good of the whole world as its aim."

    Whether you are raising your kids, fixing broken pipes, building bridges, curing diseases, teaching adolescents, writing books, defending our country—whatever your vocation, if you are a Christian your true purpose and aim is the good of the entire world.

    Reordering the world is not easy. It is, in fact, quite difficult. This week on Facebook I posed the question, "What is something difficult that you have done?" Here are some of the answers you gave:

 

Calmly discussing a major difference of opinion with a very angry person.

Quit a job before I had a new one.

Try to learn a new language so I can empathize with people moving to a new country

I worked my way through Creighton by working 2 part time jobs and riding the city bus everywhere.

Remained quiet and didn't fight back when an angry student threw me through a door.

Buried our parents & my sister.

Death notifications. At night there was almost always a porch light on for someone who was never coming home. I had to knock on that door and turn someone's world upside down. I didn't have to do it often, but even once is too many times.

Chemo and bone marrow harvest 1986. Doing that again - one year treatment 2012-2013. hardest, happiest thing - climbing Half Dome.

While teaching at UNL, I had to make a choice between standing up for ethics or my department chair. I chose ethics and turned my department chair into affirmative action during a hiring process. Needless to say I didn't stay on much longer at UNL and have never regretted it.

raising a child.....being black while living in America....maintaining my sanity...

Learn to be kind to myself and forgive myself in the process.

 

    Members of this congregation have done amazing things. You've faced dreaded diseases. You've run for public office, which takes great courage I think. You've served in the military. You've sent sons and daughters and husbands and wives off to war and welcomed them home. You've been middle school teachers, which might be a sign of insanity, but also great tenacity and chutzpah. You've battled addiction. You've passed laws. You've raised kids. And you've also done the difficult work of becoming better people, overcoming your own limitations, temptations, and sins, and in the process of changing yourselves, you also help to change the world.

    I believe that God calls us to participate in an epic adventure. We can discover the meaning and the purpose of our lives in the mission of God. We can be part of something much bigger than ourselves.

 

    In the summer of 2015 I was wondering what my next big project was going to be. I had spent much of the previous decade as a local leader here and in Oklahoma in the struggle for LGBT equality and by summer 2015 that great project seemed to have reached its climax. Sure, there was still work to be done, but the most difficult part of the struggle, which is changing people's hearts and minds, we had accomplished. The little old matter of passing all the laws is ultimately less difficult, I believe. I'm proud of the tiny part I played in a global movement for civil rights. Inspired by my religious faith I helped to make the once impossible a reality.

    So, time to do it again.

    That summer the Rev. Becky McNeil took me to lunch to discuss the experiences that Michael and I had while trying to be foster parents. We've never shared publicly all of our experiences, some of which we can't legally, but you who were around know enough to know that we had a really difficult time. And I'm not talking about our foster son. The real struggle wasn't with him, but with the agencies, the bureaucracies, the deeply broken system. Here we were good, caring people with lots to offer and every time we turned a corner we ran into another roadblock. And it wasn't just because we were a same-sex couple, though there was that. I think the bigger flaw in the system is that it is almost impossible for a professional couple with two careers to be foster parents. There are too many meetings, too much paperwork. The system is inefficient and frankly filled with lots of stupid stuff. Inefficiencies and stupidities drive me nuts. And I'm not one to refrain from expressing my opinion.

    But it was more than that even. I reported one agency for what I believed were violations of confidentiality laws. We experienced agencies engaging in territorial bickering that failed to support the welfare of the child. Some people were clearly incompetent. Many, though, were very well intentioned and not receiving the support they needed to do their jobs well.

    So I have lots of opinions about the child welfare system. Becky wanted to hear all of that. Though I think she got more of an earful than she had expected.

    That night, I couldn't sleep. My brain was racing. I began to write down all of my ideas of how the system ought to be better. I began to research best practices of other states on-line. The next morning I was exhausted. That day I had lunch with Tracy Zaiss about another matter, but when we sat down I said, "I think the Holy Spirit is calling me to work on fixing the child welfare system. Can you please convince me otherwise?"

    I called Becky McNeil and we had lunch again and we kept having lunch.

    One thing I knew is that we could start small. I can list a hundred small fixes that would improve the lives of foster parents. Becky had her own list from her years working in the system. We decided to begin with one that is easy for church folk. We'd fix lunch.

    A persistent problems with the child welfare system is that the frontline service providers, the social workers, get burned out. They are often young, idealistic people who leave the profession after only a few short years. Turnover rates are high. Last month UNO received a grant of $15 million to study the problem. We laughed that no one needed a $15 million study. Why not spend the $15 million on increasing pay and benefits and hiring more workers and thus help the problem?

    Becky knew that many social workers experience heartbreaking situations but have no venue to receive care, support, and encouragement. But as pastors we could provide that. So in October we launched Lift! a monthly lunch for frontline social workers in which we express our support for the difficult work they do, offer a devotion, and pray for and with them.

These lunches have become highlights of my month as we listen to the social workers share about their work. The trauma of going through a nasty divorce while still helping needy families. The frustrations with constantly changing rules and regulations that often hinder their ability to do their job well. The frightening middle of the night call during Christmas that one of the children they were helping has run away and is being sex trafficked. One social worker this week said, "I walk through spiritual warfare every day."

Besides support, encouragement, and prayer, we are also listening to see if there are any things that we as faith leaders can help with. So, in November one social worker complained about a difficulty they have when working with a family and getting their utilities turned back on. We wrote a letter to one of the utilities and had a phone call with their President this week in an effort to solve the problem. We have two meetings on the matter scheduled this week. We are hopeful.

During this week's lunch one of the social workers said that what she thinks they need most is simply praise for the work they are doing. Becky and I had an epiphany. Care packages for the workers. So for St. Valentine's Day our church and First Christian are going to prepare baskets of goodies—chocolates and healthy snacks and homemade cookies and cards of appreciation. And they asked specifically for packages of good pens, because they are always losing their good pens. The social workers who come to Lift! next month will then carry those baskets back to their offices to share with their co-workers.

You know how easy and relatively cheap it will be to create a care basket. But when we said we were going to do that, the social workers were so happy. Not because of the stuff, but because it will be a chance for some members of the public to say "Thank you," "Good work," "We honor and appreciate you."

So, I'm asking if you would be willing to help with that? Do you individually want to make a basket? Or get together with a couple of families? Or maybe some groups within the church? Anybody really. We hope to make this a monthly project, so maybe you'll take March or June instead of next month. Oh, and anyone want to help me coordinate this?

 

Stephanie Paulsell again, "Surely this is the song God sings to each of us: that all of our work, no matter how local, must have the good of the whole world as its aim."

God calls each of us to change the world. To live our lives on an epic scale. But we make that change happen by doing our part. The world is saved by actions that seem both big and small. But when the actions that seem small are part of something larger, they aren't small at all. They are in fact epic.

How is God calling you this year? How is your life lived in service to the mission of God?

God has given you to be a light to the nations, so that salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.


There is some truth in this

An argument that Bill Clinton's lying helped pave the way for Trump's lying. "Both men have offered the public the same devil’s bargain. Both have asked their supporters to set aside truth, honor, and decency in exchange for the presidency of the voters’ dreams."  And so this analysis of the campaign:

[Hillary] Clinton chose to campaign against Trump’s character. In her advertisements, she did not focus on offering a better devil’s bargain. She chose to make the plainly absurd case that America needed to put the Clintons in the White House for the sake of integrity, decorum, and respect for vulnerable women.


Possibilities Unfolding

Possibilities Unfolding

Isaiah 42:1-9

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

8 January 2017

 

      

 

    Imagine a situation where the world no longer made any sense. How you understood yourself, your personal identity. What you believed about God. How you determined the meaning and purpose of your life. All of that threatened.

    That's what happened when the people of Judah were taken captive and exiled away from their homeland. An entire culture in crisis, experiencing post-traumatic disorder. And in the wake of trauma, some brilliant, creative geniuses arose, including the author the passage we read today. Here we read a song written to inspire the people to imagine a better future. Hear now these words from the Book of Isaiah:

 

Isaiah 42:1-9

 

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

 

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.

 

    In the first of the Servant Songs that shine out of Isaiah, the prophet offers a portrait of the kind of leadership we should expect from one called by God: patient, nonviolent, merciful. God's chosen does not "execute justice" by force. Indeed this is a portrait of tender care—for those who are vulnerable, for ideas still coming to fullness, for small efforts struggling to plant their roots. . . . True leadership protects what is weak until it is strong enough to stand, and keeps gentle hands cupped around a weak flame until it can burn on its own.

 

So writes Harvard Divinity Professor Stephanie Paulsell.

    Here is the type of song an exiled people sing about the type of leader they desire who will bring forth justice. It reminds me of a Woody Guthrie song.

    As an Oklahoma boy, I'm particularly fond of Woody Guthrie, one of our favorite sons. His portrait, guitar strung over his shoulder, hangs in the rotunda of the State Capitol. His presence there serves as an ironic witness against much of the recent politics of Oklahoma, but I don't want to get into that.

    Guthrie wrote songs about the Great Depression and the people most disadvantaged by the economic collapse of our country. He traveled with migrant farm workers, Okies, and told their stories. In other words, the songs of exiles. And like the songs of the ancient exiles, his 20th century songs also imagine a better, more just society. I know I'm not the only person who wishes that "This Land Is Your Land" was our national anthem.

    But that's not the Woody Guthrie song which Isaiah 42 made me think of. The song that came to mind was "Christ for President."

 

Let's have Christ our President

Let us have him for our king

Cast your vote for the Carpenter

That you call the Nazarene

 

The only way we can ever beat

These crooked politician men

Is to run the money changers out of the temple

Put the Carpenter in

 

O It's Jesus Christ our President

God above our king

With a job and a pension for young and old

We will make hallelujah ring

 

Every year we waste enough

To feed the ones who starve

We build our civilization up

And we shoot it down with wars

 

But with the Carpenter on the seat

Way up in the Capital town

The USA would be on the way

Prosperity Bound!

 

    I thought of this song while studying Isaiah's song because Guthrie and Isaiah both express similar frustrations and dreams of an exiled, traumatized people. These songs are efforts to make sense of the world when the world doesn't make sense anymore. They are efforts to create something new in the midst of catastrophe.

 

    This is Baptism of the Christ Sunday, one of my favorites every year, because we profess our faith and renew our vows. I value that this Sunday comes at the beginning of the year, almost as a way of reminding us of our spiritual new year's resolutions. In our Statement of Faith we commit to:

 

accept the cost and joy of discipleship

to be servants in the service of others,

to proclaim the gospel to all the world,

and resist the powers of evil . . .

to struggle for justice and peace.

 

    What are we committing to when we renew these vows and proclaim our faith? In a certain way, we are agreeing to be God's servant as presented in Isaiah 42. Let me explain.

    The Suffering Servant Songs of Isaiah have long been understood to speak not about a particular historical person, but about the community. In the original context, the community of exiled Judeans. When the apostles were writing the New Testament they used the language of these songs in Isaiah to describe Jesus and, thereby, the church. As part of the interfaith community of God's people, we, individually and collectively, are called upon to be the servant Isaiah dreams of. Scholar Paul Hanson writes that this passage is "a catalyst for reflection on the nature of the response demanded of those who have received a call from God."

    We have all been called. During our Advent series "Remember and Dream," one Sunday we explored the "Call from Tomorrow." God is calling us into a new beginning, a better future, and calling us to be agents of that tomorrow.

    Part of what we celebrate with festivity and fantasy at Christmas time is that the Christ is born anew in each of us. In other words, we have been empowered. We have to discover that power and use it.

    The Biblical story reminds us that when we need that most is in the time of trauma, when we aren't feeling our best, our strongest, our most hopeful. That's precisely when our commitment to a better future is most needed.

    A few years ago I read a book entitled Reality is Broken by the video game designer Jane McGonigal after hearing an excerpt of her TED Talk on NPR. I ended up preaching a sermon series on the lessons I drew from that book. One lesson was that she believed the world needs more people who can practice "possibility scanning," which she defined as "always remaining open and alert to unplanned opportunities and surprising insights." And she felt that skill is most necessary in moments of chaos.

    I think we, the baptized followers of Jesus, should be precisely those kind of people. Our lives are not small or insignificant or lacking in purpose and meaning. We are part of God's epic adventure to make the world a better place. We need to claim our power and take the risk. Possibilities are unfolding. Be a part of that. Do something new.

    For the song says, "See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare."


Chernobyl

In elementary school I researched nuclear power during an era of optimism for its potential to help solve the energy crisis.  Then when the Chernobyl disaster occurred, I wrote a paper in school about it and the devastating aftereffects.  The story captivated me.

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When Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel last year, drawing attention to her book Voices from Chernobyl, I knew it was one that I wanted to read.  I began it yesterday, as part of my 2017 effort to broaden my reading of world literature (which will also increase the number of Nobel laureates I've read).

The opening pages alone are harrowing as one woman describes in intimate emotional detail the radiation poisoning and death of her husband.  Within minutes one realizes that this is an incredible, important work of literature. 


Monkey

Monkey: The Journey to the WestMonkey: The Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few years ago when Mo Yan won the Nobel I realized I had never read a Chinese novel. At the time I read a blog or article that listed Chinese novels that one should read. I saved that but never seemed to get around to it.

One of my commitments for 2017 is to read a wider array of world literature, working particularly on my lack of experience with East Asian writers. So, I chose to begin the project with this classic Chinese novel about a monkey with superpowers who becomes a Buddhist priest and helps to bring Buddhist scriptures from India to China.

These stories are entertainingly funny. I feel like in Monkey I've encountered one of the great, memorable characters in world literature. He's determined to better himself, yet his baser instincts often get in the way. The holy man Tripitaka is quite annoying, which I think might be intentional. The various gods, monsters, kings, and dragons enrich the story. Lao Tzu and Buddha also appear.

One humourous feature is the emphasis on bureaucratic order, even in the midst of a supernatural escapade, so clearly that's been a regular feature of Chinese culture.

I imagine this is a book I'll read sections of to my son when he's a little older.

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