Reflections and Questions
1. Our lection places before us God's loving intention for us, that we might live together as equals. I might suggest that the significance of husband and wife "being one flesh" might be interpreted in Girardian terms as being of one desire, a desire which is deeply rooted in God's loving desire for them to carry out the joint work together of caring for the garden.
What happens to this story, however, if God and God's loving intentions are questioned or removed? That is the point, I think, of J's story as a whole in Genesis 2-4. When the serpent tricks the man and woman into questioning God's loving intentions for them, as well as God's authority to be parent by setting boundaries (the natural role of one who does have greater knowledge of the dangers), then the man and woman and their offspring descend into the rivalries of mimetic violence. With the loss of the transcendent, external relation with God, all that is left is the distorted desire and the ensuing resentment and conflict. Eventually, brother kills brother. There can be no true equality without the transcendent authority of God's loving desire for us as children.
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
1. See the extensive bibliography on Hebrews in next week's page, Proper 23B.
Reflections and Questions
1. I think that this difficult passage begins to make tremendous sense when seen in the light of these issues about equality. The writer of Hebrews is broaching the subject of all the traditional hierarchies dealing with angels and priests and all kinds of strata. But it all comes to this:
As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you."The possibility of our truly coming together as brothers and sisters banks on the fact of our recognizing one Father. There is also the element which is unpopular these days, namely, obedience, or "subjection." Jesus came to fulfill obedience, subjection to God's loving desire for us; he was truly the Son of the Father. The only ultimately appropriate subjection is that of creation (and its creatures) to the Creator. Jesus is pioneer of its fulfillment.
There is also a greater mystery here, though, too: the element that we come into the glory of truly being God's children through the suffering of Christ. It is only through his suffering that we can come to recognize our true Father. This is presumably because, as in John's gospel, we must first come to recognize our false father, Satan, the father of all lies and a murderer from the beginning.
It is also important to recognize in what all the lies consist. I believe that feminism, for example, has rightly pointed out the lies about the false fathers, patriarchalism and all its hierarchies. But it has failed to recognize the original lie of the serpent in the garden: the lie that we can know what God knows and somehow do this all on our own. It has failed to recognize the lie that says we can be equal brothers and sisters without having a parent.
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 85. Alison is building a very nuanced argument concerning Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, and he uses Jesus’ argument against the Pharisees about divorce as an example of his understanding God’s intentions from the beginning. Link here to an excerpt of the entire section “The Founding of the New Israel of God.”
2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 228. Mark 10:15 is cited amidst the following positive elucidation of an “infantile morality”:
The approach to Christian morality that I am attempting to set out might justly be called “infantile,” for it suggests that, rather than the child being dissuaded from participating in a noisy gang of children by the threat that, if the child does not cease to participate in the noisy gang, then the ice-cream that the parent was going to give it back at home will not be given to it after all, the parent comes to the scene of the noisy gang, and starts to unwrap the ice cream in sight of the child. The child sees the ice cream beginning to be unwrapped. Desire is awakened in the child by the parent's suggestion. The desire for the ice cream recenters the child's behavior, and the child is able to leave the gang pretty painlessly.3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pages 108-111:
Notice that what has happened, entirely in line with mimetic theory as set forth by both Girard and Oughourlian, is that an anterior desire, for the good of the child, has made use of an object, an ice cream, to suggest into being a new desire in the child that effectively modifies its behavior. Mutatis mutandis this model seems to be exactly what is at work in the way in which the New Testament appeals to the eschatological imagination as that which permits the modification of our behavior. It is worth stressing that it depends on an entirely positive view of desire: we can desire things that are good for us, and should, and that these desires will not be frustrated -- rather than having us engage in any purely voluntaristic struggle with our desires, which very struggle remains within the mode of the desire that is to be overcome.
In the light of this understanding of the reality of the closeness and urgency of the new creation that is made available by our imaginations being nourished by the death-less creativity of God, it then becomes possible to see the dynamic behind much of Jesus' teaching and practice with regards to the Kingdom. Jesus' phrase about laying up for yourselves treasure in heaven, “for where your treasure is, there also is your heart” (Matt. 6:21), is manifestly not an exhortation to a self-denying asceticism whereby, if we were really adult, we would not be moved by treasures, whether here or anywhere else, but would, out of the very dignity of our adult sense of justice (or whatever) do the right thing. Jesus assumes that our need for treasure is not something which can be lobotomized by any amount of high-mindedness: we must have our desires re-formed around a more fulfilling treasure. If our eye (notoriously in Matthew's gospel formed in mimetic rivalry, or not, as the case may be: Matt 7:1-5; 20:15) is sound (rests on the goodness of one giving, and is able to desire without frustration), then the whole body is sound; whereas if the eye is not sound (formed in mimetic rivalry) then the whole body (and thus all behavior) is full of darkness (Matt 6:22-23).
That this understanding is not unique to Matthew can be shown by the way in which Jesus' pedagogy with his disciples in Mark's Gospel has recourse to children. First, so as to give the disciples a new model for desire, in the wake of their dispute as to which of them is greatest, Jesus places a small child in their midst, and takes him in his arms (Mark 9:34-37). Shortly afterwards Jesus has to rebuke the disciples for hindering the access of children to him: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15).
Finally, James and John request places of honor, and the jealous indignation of the other disciples boils over (Mark 10:35-45). However, Jesus does not rebuke James and John for their desire -- merely indicating to them the sort of tribulations they will have to go through before inheriting it. It is the other ten who are given a lecture presupposing the rivalistic nature of their own desire. James and John seem to have learnt from the child. It is not of course that children are 'innocent' in any way at all: it is just that they are less complicated and calculating about knowing what they want, running for it, and insisting on getting it. It is just such a pattern of desire that is able to receive the kingdom of God.
Did Jesus himself desire in this way? That is to say, was it the ability to imagine an urgent good for himself that enabled him to live as he did and give himself up to death? Apart from what we may deduce from the parables, there is at least one indication that the apostolic witness saw him as desiring in exactly this way, and in this being the model for our desire:...let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God. (Heb. 12:1b-2, my emphasis)We cannot, it seems, run away from the fact that the apostolic witness presents Jesus as having, in fact, taught in terms of heavenly rewards, a superabundance of heavenly rewards indeed, and expected these to be a motivating factor in the lives of those who were to follow him, and a motivating factor without any sense of shame that one is following him so as to get something, and something good for me. I hope I have shown that this does not depend on a crude 'pie in the sky' theology, but is an essential part of the eschatological imagination that Jesus was opening up for the disciples, and the beginnings of the possibility of a morality based on the calling into being and satisfaction of real desires, rather than the castration of, or weird fencing matches with, the desires that already drive us. This eschatological imagination is intrinsically related to the opening up of the vision of God. There remains the question of whether or not this vision is automatically hostile to any serious participation in human history. (The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 227-229)
How to Avoid Scandals
The extended warning against scandals (9:42-48) seems on the surface to be a stunningly sacrificial text. It commands one to cut off and throw away a hand, foot, or eye that causes one scandal, to expel the wrongdoer in sacrificial style. Cutting (apokopto, 9:43 et passim) is the essential sacrificial act, and the skill of the sacrificial butcher is most evident in dismembering. Sacrifice is prescribed as the cure for scandal.4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from October 8, 2006 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
A metaphorical rather than a literal sacrifice is being prescribed. The deconstruction of sacrifice has proceeded so far that the Gospel can use it as an image to convey the moral injunction to resist envy decisively. Scandal, as we have seen, is to love the thing one hates and hate the thing one loves. Scandal is envy, a desire to be like the other that is so intense that it would destroy the other if it cannot be like him, and also if it can. The injunctions to sever offending limbs are hyperboles expressing the urgency of the need to avoid the envy that comes from what one does (hand), where one goes (foot), and what one sees (eye), envy exemplified in the behavior of the disciples just narrated, in their wrangle about who is the greatest, and their attempt to keep the privilege of being Jesus’ agents for themselves.
The sayings that close this section confirm the sacrificial metaphor. “For everything will be salted with fire” (9:49) is an allusion to the customs of salting the cereal sacrifice and offering salt with every sacrifice (Lev 2:13). The injunction, “Have salt in yourselves, and live in peace with one another” (9:50), applies this metaphor in a moral exhortation to behave so as to achieve the peace that the sacrifice achieved. We have, therefore, a good example of how the language of sacrifice can remain the same while its meaning has been transformed from the ritual to the moral domain. The efficacy of this metaphor depends on the knowledge that mimetic violence was traditionally controlled by sacrifice, a knowledge that Mark seems to have had either consciously or, more likely, subliminally.
In the pericope of the child at the center of the circle of disciples, the sacrificial structure of the poetics remains constant, in the sense that the circle is the sacred center. The nature and direction of flow of the energy within the structure is, however, different. In the same way, the structure of scandal is constant but the content and direction are different. One deconstructs scandal by recognizing its temptation and resists it by resisting envy. Sacrifice has become a metaphor for moral action. This expresses the insight that although there can be no alteration of the mimetic structure of human relations in this world, there can nevertheless be a new mode of mediation, through the divine rather than through the rival. Triangular desire can be delivered from scandal while remaining triangular.
The pericope about divorce (10:1-12) begins by locating Jesus in the same place where he was baptized by John and driven out into the wilderness by the spirit. He is in Judea beyond the Jordan and he is tempted again (peirazontes, 10:2; cf. 1:13; 8:11; 12:15), this time by the Pharisees. The question concerns his attitude toward the Law of Moses. In response, he uses one part of the Law to set aside another, arguing that the account of creation (Gen 1:27; 2:24) takes precedence over the provision for divorce (Deut 24:1-4). This is a hermeneutical procedure of using the law to correct the law. The permission to divorce is not part of the fundamental intention of the law but an accommodation to the hardness of the human heart. The intention of the law is that marriage should be indissoluble.
It may be significant that the Gospel (10:12) envisages the unusual situation of a woman divorcing a man, thereby reflecting Roman, not Jewish custom. This strong emphasis on the high dignity of marriage could be construed as strengthening the position of women in the community, as could the next pericope on the welcoming of the children (10:13-16). This is a community that welcomes and protects the weak.
We shall not argue the merits of the prohibition of divorce here but shall simply identify the purpose of the Markan setting of the sayings: to show that Jesus has the right to dispose over the law. This point is made more vividly in the following account of the rich young man whose meticulous observance of the law is transcended by the summons to leave all and follow Jesus (10:17-31). In the instance of divorce, Jesus reinterprets the law. Here, with respect to the rich young man, Jesus sets it aside in favor of adherence to his own person. The question in the latter case is not one of observance but of intention. If the heart is hard, then no legal observance will justify it, and if desire is set on possessions, then no amount of observance will turn it to God.
In both pericopes, the action is followed by reflection with the disciples on the meaning of what has happened; in each instance, we hear the concerns of the Markan congregation in all their naivete. In between the two pericopes is the account of the blessing of the children whom the disciples had tried to prevent from approaching (10:13-16). In all three cases, we hear the voices of those who have chosen to be outsiders in company with Jesus musing about their community as one that forbids divorce, welcomes everyone who wishes to join, and has given up the things of this world in the hope of a miraculous reward (10:28-31). They are outsiders with reference to the Mosaic law as well as to economic security and family relations.
It is appropriate that the section ends with the last of the passion predictions, spoken as they leave the place beyond the Jordan and ascend fearfully toward Jerusalem (10:32-3-1). Even as they ascend to the denouement, the quarrel about precedence in the kingdom breaks out again because they think that what awaits them in Jerusalem is a triumph (10:35-45). 0nce again, the disciples simply do not hear the prediction of the passion (4:11-12) and have to be taught that the one who is greatest among them must be the servant of all because the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve and to give himself.
The new community of the serving Son of Man is, therefore, a nonhierarchical community in which the desire for God is more important than observance of the religious law, and in which women and children are cherished. Sacrifice has become a metaphor for humility and moral seriousness; it has become willing self-sacrifice.
1. In 2006 my take on this passage has been shaped by the experience of being the parents of internationally adopted children. Central to my faith experience has become the promise that opens the Bible as salvation history:
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing ...and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Genesis 12:1-2, 3b)At the heart of being the Messiah is the fulfillment of this promise to Abraham and Sarah that they are blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. St. Paul isn't just taking time-out from his main arguments in Romans and Galatians to spend whole chapters on Abraham (Romans 4 and Galatians 3). Paul sees Messiah Jesus as the fulfillment that Abraham would become a "father of us all" (Rom 4:16). Or that he would say, "And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you'" (Galatians 3:8). In Jesus the Messiah, the walls that used to divide Jews and Gentiles has come down:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace... So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:13-15, 19-20)In short, through Jesus the Messiah "all the families of the earth" (Gen. 12:3) have become "the household of God" (Eph. 2:19).
This is crystal clear for St. Paul. Did Jesus also know what he was doing as the Messiah? One of the themes of N. T. Wright's work on the Historical Jesus (see the bibliography) is Jesus' radical reworking of typical human symbols, but the symbols of the Jewish faith, in particular. One of those most closely held symbols in most cultures is family. Wright comments at one point in Jesus and the Victory of God (p. 369ff.) that Jesus' way of challenging symbols we typically cherish, like that of family, would be akin to burning our nation's flag. Of the symbol of family in particular, Wright remarks that "Jesus, to put it mildly, set a time-bomb next to this symbol" (p. 400).
Here are some of the passages Wright puts forward as examples:
When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." ... Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3:21, 31-35)But I think there is also a positive statement of Jesus reworking of the symbol of family that corresponds to St. Paul's insights. In John 3:3, for example, Jesus answers Nicodemus on salvation, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." What does this mean if it doesn't point to the stretching of our usually ideas of what constitutes family? If we truly come to see ourselves as born from above to be God's child, then that means coming to see that every person on this earth is our brother or sister. It means coming to experience ourselves as of the household of God. (I was coaxed into and supported in this reading this past Lent 4B by Sarah Dylan Breuer's essay on John 3.)
While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!" But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!" (Luke 11:27-28)
Another of his disciples said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead." (Matthew 8:21-22)
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 10:34-39)
Now think of today's Gospel also in this light, as Jesus says: "Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:15). Could this point to the same rebirthing from above? I think so.
2. Receiving God's kingdom as a child means recognizing the
authority of a parent. Human relationships are not purely
horizontal, that is, as sibling relationships only, threatening to
constantly fall into sibling rivalry. The liberation movements of
our time, which have unquestionably done so much good, can have
the tendency to level all relationships into sibling alone. Are
there dangers to this tendency?
Mimetic theory raises some crucial questions for all the liberation movements of our time. I have been a firm believer in the movements to combat racism, sexism, hierarchism, and the like. From the perspective of mimetic theory (and this text?), however, I think it is prudent to raise a couple fundamental questions that I don't think have been seriously considered as part of these movements.
My take on the various liberation movements is that they locate the entire problem with the structures of human communities and institutions that advantage some people and disadvantage others. An overarching label for this structural inequity has been "hierarchism." The assumption, then, has been that if we can only do away with hierarchism and somehow instate non-hierarchical structures, everything will be fine. The fact that, as we move towards these structures, many new problems seem to arise, has only stepped up the rhetoric of needing to completely overthrow these structures and finally get the job done. It is assumed that any problems which arise must be due to the fact that we haven't yet completely ended such things as structural racism, sexism, etc.
The sociological dimension of mimetic theory wholly supports, and helps to explain, the criticisms of hierarchical structures. It explains how it is that all communities structure themselves sacrificially such that some people will be advantaged and some disadvantaged. Mimetic theory joins in the criticism of such structures. It also suggests that the true God who has revealed the Godself through Jesus Christ stands against such sacrificial structures and calls us to equality in the human family.
But I would like to suggest that mimetic theory also raises an issue with the psychological dimension that the liberation movements have failed to raise: that the sacrificial structures have been put in place to ward off a greater, more deadly, apocalyptic violence of all-against-all. And this all-against-all violence seemingly comes into place when everyone in a community is undifferentiated, lacking any sense of a transcendent order. The sacrificial structures violently -- with a sanctioned, sacred violence -- impose an order at the expense of a victim, or victims, and instate some sort of (falsely) transcendent ordering principal.
Ultimately, we cannot accept these sacrificial solutions. We are right to support their dismantling. But we also do so with great danger of apocalyptic, profane violence if we do not understand the source of this latter violence which the sanctioned violence of sacrificial institutions has held back through the centuries. I think that our liberation movements have failed to understand this violence; in fact, they tend to pooh-pooh it, saying that notions of "original sin," and similar psychological hypotheses, are myths of the powers-to-be. The only sins are structural ones, institutional in nature. If we can only do away with these, then we'll all be fine.
Mimetic theory cannot go along with this latter assumption of the liberation movements. It postulates that the sanctioned violence of sacrificial institutions is put into place to address another kind of violence. It is the violence that arises, because of our fallenness, when we are all equal. The fallenness into rivalry results in a false sense of equality that comes from being undifferentiated -- with no transcendent order. In Girardian terms, we must mark the difference between internal and external relations within the dynamics of mimetic desire. With internal relations, in which we tend to see each other as 'equal,' there is little perceived distance between subject and model, and so there is a compulsion -- a "fall," if you will -- toward rivalry. And with rivalry, eventually conflict. And with the rising conflict, eventually an all-against-all apocalyptic violence during which the sacrificial solution mechanistically inserts itself (hence, Girard's term for this being the "sacrificial crisis," i.e., a crisis of profane violence that yields a sacrificial solution).
Pre-modern sacrificial cultures seemingly recognized this problem with 'equality' as symbolized by practices such as infanticide of twins. (Missionary Mary Slessor, for example, adopted dozens of African twin children in the 19th century as she rescued them from ritual murder.) They intuited the fact that such perceived equality, such lack of differentiation, leads to great danger, so they ritually excised that danger. Mythic stories are also laced with stories of sibling rivalries -- e.g., Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau. Mimetic theory suggests that there exists a problem with internal relations of mimetic desire when there are no intervening, effective external relations, a problem which I believe the modern liberation movements to be largely ignoring or denying.
External relations, then, are those in which the model is perceived as, to some extent, transcendent. There is an element of 'distance,' an element of worship, such that the subject is less inclined to fall into rivalry with the model, and so is less inclined to fall into resentment and the ensuing violence. Ideally, transcendence is rooted in God the Creator, the one who is meaningfully different from us precisely as our Creator. This is the positive side of hierarchical relations that is typically not admitted to in liberation movements.
Again, our human hierarchical structures must ultimately be criticized, because they exist on the basis of falsely transcendent beings. The king, for example, is not inherently more worthy of praise than any other person. Nor men over women, or white people over people of color, etc. But the element of transcendence does help to stave off rivalry and unsanctioned mimetic violence. So when we dismantle these structures, what truly transcendent element is going to replace the false ones if we are going to also hold off the ensuing violence that comes from the situation of all internal relations of mimetic desire, with no external relations?
I would like to suggest that the latter is a fundamental question for the biblical tradition, which begins by posing Yahweh as the one true God, the only one worthy of our worship and praise. There are to be no other idols, no other models for our worship, the first and most central commandment, the Jewish Shema. And Jesus came to focus that, and to reinterpret it to some extent, by modeling a relationship to a heavenly "Abba." With a heavenly "Abba" who loves us as children, all our other relationships can be lived out with the true equality of brothers and sisters. We can love our neighbor as ourselves. So what does it take to enter this household of God, according to Jesus? You must become like children. If we try to be equal brothers and sisters to one another, without our truly transcendent parent, then the result will be a sibling rivalry that will ultimately plunge us into the hell fires of our own violence. And this is the important question that I think the biblical tradition poses to all our liberation movements: can we truly be equal brothers and sisters if we behave as if we have no parent?
The problem of our modern liberation movements that I'm trying to lift up here might be simply put: We are trying to all be brothers and sisters of one another without a parent. Mimetic theory poses the problem that, when there is no jointly recognized authority, no mutual sense of transcendence, then there is nothing to prevent us from falling into endless sibling rivalries. We begin to descend into an increasing darkness of order and disorder.
Jesus offers to us a household ("Kingdom") of God. He comes to
bring it near. Yet to enter this household, we must become as
children, because there is only one true parent to be recognized,
God. There is a loving desire transcendent and prior to our
desire, the love that created us and all of creation. It is only
when we open ourselves to that loving desire -- modeled through
Jesus the Messiah who is the true Son, and mediated to us through
the Spirit -- that we are then able to live successfully as
siblings minus the unjust hierarchies of our human origins.
3. The first part of this lection deals with marriage and divorce. One of the most basic human relationships is that of husband and wife. And through the ages the problem of false equality has generally been solved by making the husband the head of the household, a typical sacrificial move. Can a husband and wife live together as true equals? I think that the second part of our lection, the part we have focused our comments around here, suggests that we can if we let God be the head of the household. Link here for a sermon, entitled "Being Like a Child Means Having a Parent," that relates these two seemingly disparate parts of today's gospel.
4. I have been caught preaching this text going all the way back to my internship in 1982. In the old Lutheran lectionary, this lection only included the verses regarding marriage and divorce. Since moving to the Revised Common Lectionary, we Lutherans now can choose the latter part about receiving the kingdom like a child. Or, with the two passages together now in the same lection, is it easier to see that there is a strong theme common to both? This lection is not so much two separate topics -- divorce / marriage and receiving the kingdom like a child -- but rather Jesus’ responses to two occasions of the hardness of heart due to a climate of rivalry and resentment. This lection is about hardness of heart, or, to use Hamerton-Kelly's terms above, "How to avoid scandal." You might say it is a heart-warming text -- Jesus working to soften our hard hearts. 2006 was the latest time it came up early in my ministry in a call; I titled the sermon "A Heart-Warming Text."
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