Posts Tagged ‘greatest commandment’

Haven’t been around for a while but just found some time (ha!) to take a look at Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, which I paid too much for when in one of those need-to-buy-a-book moods.  Despite some philosophical jargon, it’s quite accessible. I’ve been reading it slowly to stimulate my thoughts on love, which brings me to the current post, recasting some previous thoughts on the subject. It should also be noted that this is almost primarily a textual exercise, working in the ideal, as my experience in both love romantic and love universal is lacking.


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Love in the New Testament is first defined in relation to God: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1Jn 4:10).¹ Paul has similar thoughts, demonstrating God’s initiation and humility in love: “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Although divine love is founded on an unequal relationship, human love should be equal and reciprocal, as is shown in the Jesus’ words on the greatest commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39). To points can be made here. Firstly, love of yourself provides the measure by which your neighbour should be loved. To put it negatively, hate of others is firstly hate of self. Slavoj Žižek makes this related observation:

I don’t think that the so-called fundamentalist Islamic terror is grounded in the terrorist’s conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilisation and so on and so on … The problem with … fundamentalist terrorists is not that we consider them inferior to us but rather that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior.

Secondly, at least regarding the romantic, love to be love requires reciprocity. It’s cliche but: in love there is the desire to love and be loved, so to truly love others we must allow them to love us too. To love another is love yourself is to accept another’s love for you.

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Yet love is not always reciprocated! As shown above, love comes first from God and then overflows into human relationships. Further, not only does God’s love for us inform these relationships but in Christianity the self’s love for another is an extension of their primary love for God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mt 22:37-39). John also makes this connection in suggesting that hating another is equivalent to hating God: “I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness” (1Jn 2:8-9).

What is not reciprocated in human love is already there in abundance in divine-human love. This is how the golden rule, as an adaption of the neighbour-love commandment, can also ignore reciprocity: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12). Rather than basing neigbour-love on self-love, neighbour-love here is based on an ideal. Regardless of whether you are treated the way you would most like to be, treat others in this way. The call to enemy-love in the New Testament is an even clearer illustration of this sacrificing human reciprocity to express divine love (Mt 5:43-48; Rom 12:19-21).


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Finally, although love requires two giving parties, two places in the Bible I can think of make room for the consummation of the dialectic, when  two become one. Paul writes, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3). This is akin to Moses’ words, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written” (Ex 32:31-32). Here self-giving love is not only not reciprocated by others but, out of love, sunders itself from the power which makes it possible. God gives his love so completely that the one who receives this love can only also give themselves completely, so completely that the self initiates its own annihilation in the other. The standard characterisation of love as exclusive and preferential can be expanded here: Precisely because of love’s exclusivity with and preferentiality for the divine, it overflows to the inclusive and universal.

But to what extent, as the utmost expression of love, is self-annihilation its end?  Jesus’ paradoxical call to follow him contains a surprise twist: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25). Following Jesus here is a complete self-denial; any hint of intentions towards self-preservation in one’s acts and one is not really following him. It is self-annihilation in the other. But the paradox is that salvation comes only through this act of self-annihilation. Completely forsaking one’s rights, privileges and self is paradoxically the only way one comes by them in the first place. Even when the self cuts off all reciprocity through sacrifice, it miraculously receives it back. This is evident in the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11:

Though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

God dies. He sacrifices all there is to sacrifice, in complete self-annihilation. Yet he receives it all back and more. The obvious difficulty with this is that self-annihilation is not really self-annihilation if the self sees some reward coming to it after implementing its actions. But this is to miss the point of the paradox: In complete devotion to the other, the self forsakes all consideration of its own preservation, cutting itsself off in the state of giving, not the anticipation of receiving. The self’s reception of salvation is not transactional; but rather the Lord, who gave so that it could give, justifies it out of a desire to keep on giving.


In the passage to which this hymn is connected, Paul admonishes the  Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Php 2:3). The picture of divine love is replicated in the Christian community. Here, as in the above examples, reciprocity is suspended through the sacrifice of putting others’ needs before one’s own, yet the action is reciprocated, as other members of the community treat their others in the same way.

Love is a dialectic: sacrifice is not made first possible through the love already received from the other to which the sacrifice is directed, but it ‘leaps’ forward on the basis of divine love, seeking to express this love with another but with no guarantee of the love’s return or reciprocation. Yet it is reciprocated, and in this way it is contained in divine love.

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¹All citations from the NRSV

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If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have Nietzsche, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

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Recently I’ve been tucking into Nietzsche’s Beyond good and evil. I first read Thus spoke Zarathustra, but found it quite riddlesome and esoteric. Nietzsche seems to speak a lot more straight-forwardly here, and with a lot less righteous decrying against humanity’s stupidity to this point (his critique is a lot more peaceful and shows some understanding).

One particularly seductive piece of insight Nietzsche employs is his term ‘will to power’, by which he interprets existence. Basically he’s saying that everything we do is done out of a motivation, a will, if you will, for power, which is more important to beings than mere self-preservation. The popular example (which I know not whether it has its origins in Nietzsche or the commentators) is that a martyr gladly embraces death out of a will to power, the will to eternal life. But maybe this isn’t an accurate enough example. If a martyr really believes they will live eternally then this is still an expression of will to self-preservation. Will to power can be examined more surely in someone who has no hope of life after death, say someone who believes they will cease to exist in their entirety, bar a lifeless body, on the point of their death yet chooses to give their life for the sake of another. If Nietzsche were to read into this situation the will to power, I’m guessing he would say something about how in the last few seconds of that person’s life they gained a sense of power in knowing that their sacrifice would preserve another’s life just that little bit longer. This, then, is what Nietzsche says on Christian love:

There is nothing for it: the feelings of devotion, self-sacrifice for one’s neighbour, the entire morality of self-renunciation must be taken mercilessly to task and brought to court[…] That they give pleasure — to him who has them and to him who enjoys their fruits, also to the mere spectator — does not yet furnish an argument in their favour, but urges us rather to caution. So let us be cautious!

(Beyond good and evil, p.64, 2003 Penguin edition, emphasis original)

It really depends what you mean by power… The word translated here as ‘pleasure’ is just another way of terming the benefit of love for the one who loves, which Nietzsche points out. Whatever word you may use, pleasure, power or something else, the crux of this German’s point cannot easily be overlooked, and this is the interpretation to which I can reduce it: Complete selflessness is impossible as it is always in response to a desire within the self. And with this emphasis, Nietzsche summarises the history of morality with a vision for a new morality. His vision seems somehow to prophetically herald modern psychology:

Throughout the longest part of human history — it is called prehistoric times — the value or non-value of an action was derived from its consequences: the action itself came as little into consideration as did its origin[…] Over the past ten thousand years, on the other hand, one has in a few large tracts of the earth come step by step to the point at which it is no longer the consequences but the origin of the action which determines its value[…] men became unanimous in the belief that the value of an action resided in the value of the intention behind it[…] today, when among us immoralists at least the suspicion has arisen that the decisive value of an action resides in precisely that which is not intentional in it, and that all that in it which is intentional, all of it that can be seen, known, ‘conscious’, still belongs to its surface and skin — which, like every skin, betrays something but conceals still more? In brief, we believe that the intention is only a sign and a symptom that needs interpreting, and a sign, moreover, that signifies too many things and which thus taken by itself signifies practically nothing.

(pp.62-63, emphasis original)

Link confronts his extra-moral intentions

I’ve made some omissions because the passage is quite lengthy. This means you’ve missed out on the terms: ‘pre-moral’ for actions evaluated by their consequences, ‘moral’ for their intentions, and ‘extra-moral’ for the complexity behind the intentions. If you didn’t get that, Nietzsche seems to me to be basically saying that there is such a range of forces acting upon us and within us that to judge an action by its intentions is a gross oversimplification. As he contemplates the will, “Willing seems to me to be above all something complicated, something that is a unity only as a word” (p.48). When we are loving towards others, there seems to be an almost infinite amount of factors acting with us to bring about that love. This means not just factors within ourselves but also physical/environmental factors acting upon us. If they are lovable, yes that helps; if they are especially unlovable then that may be the very factor that makes them lovable, as a kind of challenging response to Jesus’ words “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5:46-47 NIV)¹

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Now that Nietzsche has so eloquently pooed on the Christian campfire, how can love still be possible? But to that I say, to what extent have you stuck your theological crowbar between the poles of love and individuality? In other words, why do we necessarily need to have pure motives to love? A year or so ago I undulated into some spiritual despair regarding not actually wanting to spend time in prayer and other devotional activities. I was disillusioned with my own depravity. How could I be a Christian if my natural desires overpowered my spiritual ones? Why not be true to myself and face who I really was? A good friend (who will remain nameless) gave me some words of wisdom that resonated with me. Reflecting on a relationship with a pretty special person, my friend told me, “We have a lot of great times, but we also have not so great times. Sometimes when my partner wants to spend time together, that person is the last person I want to see at that moment, but I know I need to do it for the sake of our relationship”². And this is the honesty with which we must approach love.

In the wake of Nietzsche’s critique on morality, it wouldn’t be completely smart to attempt an evaluation of every single factor acting upon our each and every action. This only shows our desire to justify ourselves. What would be smarter would be to acknowledge the inherent selfishness and introspective mystery in everything we do, and then to go beyond it, to make a double movement back to the pre-moral, where actions are evaluated by their consequences. In so doing we embrace all three stages of Nietzsche’s morality: We act humbly as we do now and acknowledge that we have good intentions and bad intentions, all the while confronting these; we examine ourselves as the bearers of a complex will in a world of complex forces; and finally, we self-defeatedly seek consolation from our selfish intentions by focussing now on what our actions produce.

I don’t want to undermine the challenge to spiritual introspection and a pure heart that Christianity poses,  but I do want to note that this is sometimes disarming. Whether your work for the kingdom is in part motivated by an interest in the light at the end of tunnel, your societal image, or a desire to prove to your parents that you’re something rather than nothing, etc, all you can do is acknowledge. Yes, seek to overhaul your desires, but yes, also soldier on in spite of the knowledge your selfishness.

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¹Jesus’ appeal to rewards, which seems to be so often overlooked, possibly as a response to the negative conceptions of Christianity as a selfish practice to ensure your own eternal life, can be read with a kind of Nietzschean irony: We can’t escape our desire for rewards so why not embrace it?

²It might sound awkward because I’ve removed all references to gender

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“Evangelicals have been raised to be suspicious of Christian tradition… Believers whose (unacknowledged) tradition is that the Bible is their only guide for faith and that there is not reliable Christian tradition must come to terms with how they got this view before they are willing to adopt the church tradition as their own.” –D.H. Williams¹

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When Protestants started breaking away from the Catholic Church they needed to establish what their authority was. Obviously it was still God, as it was with the Catholics, but something had got lost in translation and God was asking people to do what God doesn’t ask people to do. For Catholics, the Church was an authority that represented God as much as Scripture did. The Protestants, having seen human fallibility represented in the theology and practice of the Church, curbed that authority and developed the doctrine of sola scriptura, the bible alone being their source of faith. This blog post will attempt to bring to the surface some assumptions we have made on the basis of sola scriptura and some critical thinking that will hopefully in some way contribute to the Kingdom of God. Chur.

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One of the dangers of sola scriptura is the unavoidable consequence that biblical interpretation is no longer given to the individual by those who should know what they’re talking about; instead the individual interprets the bible personally. I don’t want to undermine the blessing of being free from uncritically received biblical interpretation though. It is surely a blessing that individuals read the bible and decided that God really did want women in church leadership. It is another blessing that a small group of people called Quakers read the bible and found out that God really didn’t want people to join in on all those wars. It is a great blessing that some devoted theologians over the centuries have again realised that you don’t have to do anything to be saved. It’s right there. It’s free. If we didn’t have individual bible interpretation then we wouldn’t have these things in Christianity to the same extent that we now have them. But one downside I suppose is that some guy read the bible and decided that God wanted us to keep most of those laws in the Old Testament, that Jesus hadn’t really abolished them, only some, and that we had to stop eating bacon. Another guy read the bible and told everyone that salvation isn’t for everyone, only those that God invited to the party. I’m still waiting for mine in the mail. And then this one guy read the bible and decided that if you give all your money to this church you attend then God will give it all back including triple and more, because the meek will inherit the earth or something. We probably wouldn’t have these if the Church was still an authority, or we would but to a lesser extent.

To be honest, I do certainly prefer the freedom of personal biblical interpretation. But what would I think if others hadn’t told me what to think? There are infinite controversies, including the topic of this blog, our ideas around the bible, which I need all the time in the world to do adequate research for and make up my mind on. Because it’s so important to have an opinion on anti-semitic sentiments expressed among the early church fathers… But really: People need to be told what to think about things. When necessary, you critique what you’re hearing. Other times, you assimilate it.

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“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2Timothy 3:16-17).

Would I be right in citing this as the most popular piece in the bible for asserting its inspiration? Not only does Paul poetically describe the origin of Scripture, but he also provides Timothy with purpose of Scripture. What Scripture was Paul speaking of though? His Scripture would have been the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which included the apocrypha² (books which are rarely found in a Protestant bible but are part of the Catholic, Orthodox and other canons). Modern bible translation uses the Septuagint to double check dubious translations of the Hebrew and better understand quotations in the New Testament, as most quotations from the Old Testament appearing in the New Testament are from the Septuagint. The New Testament authors’ use of the Septuagint explains why we have Jude³ quoting from Enoch (vv.14-15), and Paul making use of the Wisdom of Solomon in Romans (1:19-20). This guy has some good examples, including the Romans one.

So Paul probably isn’t referring to the bible as we currently know it. Peter, on the other hand, uses the same Greek word for the Hebrew Bible, translated as ‘Scripture’ to refer to a collection of Paul’s writings (2Peter 3:15-16 — there is an uncanny numerical resemblence to the piece from 2Timothy). But what is Scripture? It is widely accepted that the Book of Isaiah had not one but three authors, concerning close but historically separate times in Israel’s history. The Book of Job is an ancient poem and parallels of it can be found in other literary traditions. Elihu, the young eavesdropper in the story who gets a word in to rebuke Job and his friends just before God turns up is not mentioned at the start when Job’s other friends turn up and nor is he mentioned by God, who should really approve of his actions. He was probably written in at a much later date. Should I still consider what he says when reading Job or just flick past him? The Comma Johanneum, in 1John 5:7-8, is a later insertion by trinitarians which can not be found in any early Greek manuscripts. Until recently it was included in English bible translations.

The Book of Revelation was still being disputed as canonical five hundred years after Jesus had risen. Dionysius of Alexandria, quoted in Eusebius, writes, “I, however, would not dare reject the book, since many brethren hold it in esteem, but since my intellect cannot judge it properly, I hold that its interpretation is a wondrous mystery.” Dionysius had an esteemable intellect. His view is a profound contrast to the dogmatic end-time theologies people have constructed around this book. Hebrews, because of its unknown authorship and theology around apostasy was also widely disputed. The Shepherd of Hermas was, along with other writings not included in our New Testament, widely read and accepted by many early Christians, but the Church later rejected it because of its adoptonist theology, that is implying that Jesus became God’s Son at baptism. Now that the Church is concerned by things other than orthodoxy it’s not such a big issue, so imagine if a new council arose in modern times and James was excluded because of theological leanings to works-based salvation or 1Timothy for asserting that women would be saved through childbearing.

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That is the crux of what I’ve been exposed to so far, but there’s a lot more learned people out there who can give a decent critique of our current canon. I hope you enjoyed the whirlwind tour. If anything, problems with inspiration, biblical unity and canon should point to something that we can all agree is inspired by the Holy Spirit, that the bible uniformly makes clear and which every saved soul has experienced: Love God; love others.

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¹The quote is a paraphrase. I came across it in ‘Deep Church’, a book that looks for a midway point between postmodern and traditional Christianity.

²I may be wrong.

³Earlier on in Jude, the author also cites a confrontation between Michael and Satan, not mentioned elsewhere in the bible. You may be interested to also know that Paul quotes three Greek (?) poets throughout his writings.

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This is the concluding post in a series on theology of calling. Calling in the religious sense is pretty inseparable from following the Spirit, as I see it, which can also be expressed as following Jesus:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NIV). Now, it’s not my intention to be divisive (haha), but what if there is something in calling that in comparison to following Jesus is greater still? It could only be the greatest commandment(s): Love God; love others. There is more poetic value in saying that love transcends and is greater than following the Holy Spirit, whereas in reality (the ideal reality/ideality), following the Spirit is the expression of love.

Maybe Jesus puts loving God as the greatest commandment before loving people as the first realistically encompasses or leads to the second, whereas loving people may not necessarily lead us to loving God, although it could. However, a certain idea around the second commandment that is important in its original designation can actually point away from God and others when too much emphasis is put onto it: I think it was C S Lewis who said so, although I cannot find the reference, that to love others you need to love yourself. He points out that the reference for loving others in the commandment is the individual’s self. If you hate yourself then how can you possibly love your neighbour as yourself? So at the core of Christian ethics, we find a model for self care, even so that it is necessary for fulfillment of the second greatest commandment (or the first, which encompasses the second). The problem is that this is also symptomatic of an extreme in Christianity where you can use your theology to serve yourself, an individualistic model of following Jesus.

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I apologise for any circumlocutory handling of the material here but let’s see if it works. Jesus goes further than just asking his followers to take up their cross and follow him. He gives an explanation for why this is important that gives us an idea of the nature of denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following Christ: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24 NIV). I am indebted to Peter Rollins for the following interpretation of this verse. We often read this as: If you want save your earthly life, you will lose it. Yet if lose your earthly life for Jesus, there will be heavenly life. Yet Jesus here makes no distinction between earthly life and heavenly life; they are both referred to as life, indicated by the pronoun ‘it’, because if you lose your life, you will save it. This leaves no room for denying yourself and taking up your cross to gain eternal life. If it does then you are among those who want to save their life, therefore losing it. The central point of following Jesus is Jesus, through denying yourself, etc. This is further indicated by Paul’s famous declaration: “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21 NIV), because living means to follow Christ and dying means to be with him. So to follow Christ means just that, to follow Christ.¹

The idea of calling, though, can be even less about Jesus, even less about eternal life, and more about our present needs and desires. No longer is Christ the centrepoint who will give you everything you need to follow him if you make that decision (Matthew 6:33; cf Psalm 37:4), but the needs of ourselves become primary so that calling is about what we want. A good example is in the Gandhi movie (in which the incident I am about to detail seems to be a representation of something mentioned in his autobiography) where Gandhi is talking to his wife about cleaning the latrine. She is offended by his asking her to do so because it is the work of the untouchables, whereas she is the wife of Gandhi, both of them members of a higher caste and involved in lawyer work. Why should the wife of a lawyer clean toilets when there are other important things she could be doing? Similarly, why should I play guitar in church if I’m called to be on the prayer team? (I will try to make these examples universal and not apply to any people I know so sorry if they do!). Why should I take the job with the troubled youths when my gifts are more in line with architectural design? Because the focus of calling is not our own desires and gifts, but whom we are following and working among. So you may not be very good at guitar, or you may not even enjoy it that much, but what if God is calling you to be a part of it for that time? You may be an amazing architect, but what if to follow Jesus means applying for that job with the troubled youth? And of course I need to pose these questions to myself also, considering the number of decisions I have made consulting my own needs before the Kingdom. To follow your calling means not to follow your needs and desires but to follow Jesus wherever he goes, as these will be met through that, even though that is not the goal.

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Now I return to the second greatest commandment. The problem with having yourself as the measure for loving others is that if there are times when you do not love yourself then your measure for loving others is reduced. Not that self-care is unimportant. But maybe the type of self we should measure by is not so much the real self but the ideal self. This is reflected in a similar verse, where Jesus cites the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12 NIV). The self is not the real self (do to others what they do to you) but the ideal self, an ideal representation of how you would like to be treated. So in the same way, when Jesus asks us to love [our] neighbour as [our]sel[ves], why can it not be the ideal self, love your neigbour as you would love yourself? I cannot provide any evidence that the ideal self is implied in the second greatest commandment but I can only point to the Golden Rule, and I cannot say that this supersedes the second greatest commandment either, nor can I even say that there is no difference between the two. All I can say is that the reading of the Golden Rule should remind us of the real focus of the commandments, which is God and others, through love. The individual self is just a measuring stick.

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¹Of course there is also room in Christianity for following Christ for eternal life. This is why Jesus came (eg. John 10:10) and Paul also endorses this (eg. Romans 2:7). But there is also the is prophetic value in calling God’s people back to the center of things, even if it is somewhat beyond us. The main point I am making here is not so much whether you want to be with Christ or go to heaven, but whether your wordly priorities are more important to you than following Christ.

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