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Posts Tagged ‘social conditions’

[A chapter selection from  Quakering Theology]

The most penetrating sound of September 2001 came not on Tuesday the 11th but on Sunday the 16th.

In November of 1963, only two days after Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, gridiron warriors assembled on one hundred yard fields and pushed, and tackled, and punted, and passed. Near capacity crowds were somber, but nevertheless cheered on seven NFL games; Pittsburgh tied Chicago 17-17, Cleveland trounced the Cowboys by ten points. On a Sunday afternoon in late January 1991, while soldiers were engaged in a Storm in the Desert, the most creative television commercials of the season were shown during breaks from Super Bowl XXV. Allied troops fought Saddam; the New York Giants beat the Buffalo Bills 20-19.

The most penetrating sound of September 2001 came not on Tuesday the 11th but on Sunday the 16th; in stadiums across the country there was no football, there was only silence. The silent stadium was a more truthful witness to the moment than were the immediate demands for war; the silent stadium spoke more poignantly than the immediate calls for peace.

It was the simple-minded naiveté of both the hawks and the doves that first made me uneasy. It was all so simple. Too simple. “Steer clear, dear Odysseus, steer clear and save your life!”

On one hand, there was the immediate response to “kill them,” “retaliate with everything we have,” “unleash the dogs of war.” We are victims, they are the enemy! On the day after, Lance Morrow wrote in Time magazine, “A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let’s have rage. What’s needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury—a ruthless indignation.”[1]

At the same time, another chorus of voices sang a dirge of national self-loathing. Here the model of blame is inverted…they are the victims and we are the enemy. “Our foreign policy has alienated and disenfranchised and, therefore, the actions of the terrorists, while horrible, were certainly understandable.”

It was all so simple.

But it was precisely the simplicity of the solutions that convinced me of their impossibility. From the “war on them” to the “war on us” everything had the ring of sanctimoniousness and superficiality.

Blaming clogged the internet, but empty football stadiums spoke more truthfully.

Each year in the liturgical rhythm of the Christian calendar a little noted day is lodged between two more celebrated days—Holy Saturday. It is often neglected, but it speaks to this moment in our history. Our time is a Holy Saturday. The horror of the crucifixion is over; the image of the embodiment of our hopes broken and bleeding and dead still lingers fresh and raw. In the liturgy, Holy Saturday reenacts a waiting for something we know has come. Our waiting is different. In agony and in fear we want to rush into the tomb and rescue Jesus, to save him from the chill of the tomb. But when we remove Jesus on Saturday we have nothing but a corpse. Easter has not yet come. And who knows, maybe Easter will never come. But, if it does, who can know what form it will take?

Plato spoke of metaxy as an in-between place, a place where humans meet God. We are standing now between horror and hope in a chasm of betweenness, uncertain, messy, dangerous, ambiguous. Yet, this metaxy is the place where God is. On the lengthy Holy Saturday following September 11th I did not stand with chattering academics nor with military advisors nor with spin doctors nor with resolute pacifists; I chose to stand in-between, beside the padded shoulders of a silent line backer.


[1] Lance Morrow, “The Case for Rage and Retribution,” Time (September 12, 2001). http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/ 0,8599,174641,00.html (accessed January 5, 2011).

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I watched with gratitude and no small amount of nervousness, as thirty-three miners (thirty-two Chilean – one Bolivian) were hoisted more than two thousand feet to the surface. After sixty-nine days they were each stepping foot again on the earth under which they had been buried since August 5.

There are many examples of heroism, creativity, raw determination that are part of this story. I’m quite taken by Luis Urzua, the fifty-four year old shift leader who was, at his insistence, the last of the thirty-three men to be rescued. Urzua was the first to contact those on the surface, seventeen days after the mine’s collapse. He divided cans of tuna fish that helped keep the men alive while they waited supplies from the surface. He organized the workers into three work shifts, and he poured over diagrams that helped the rescuers in their plans for assisting the thirty-three.

According to an article on CNN.com, the rescue ended “a saga that gripped a nation that never gave up hope.” When Luis Urzua emerged from the red, white and blue steel tube that hoisted him to the surface he said: “ I hope this will never happen again.” (“Everyone out of the mine in Chile” accessed 10/13/10 CNN.com)

The wife of one of the miners, Lillian Ramirez (sixty-three year old, Mario Gomez) echoed the Hebrew Bible – Daniel Chapter three when the fiery furnace contained more than Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Ramirez told reporters: “To say there were thirty-three trapped in the mine is wrong. There were thirty-three men – and God.”

Hope is a kind of confidence that does not give up – even when perhaps we think it should. Even when circumstances might warrant despair, hope is the unseemly response that something awaits that we cannot fully anticipate or name.

“Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God.”

This is what grants hope its audacity. “Faith believes God to be true, hope awaits the time when this truth shall be manifest.” (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 20) Audacity is made possible because hope is rooted in the promise of God whom we have through the centuries known to be faithful – even when humans have forgotten, turned away, crafted idols, and done everything in our power to extinguish the hope of the world.

One theological problem haunts us constantly, whether we are doing theology as an academic subject or whether we are living it in the day to dayness of life in the trying-to-be-faithful community called church – this is the problem of the future. We do not know the future and are not yet there – but this is not the problem – it is not a lack of knowing nor a limitation of location. Rather, the problem of the future – theologically speaking – is the struggle for what remains after all else passes away…the struggle for hope.

We have possessed since the beginning of time the capacity to extinguish the future. Cain’s slaughter of his brother marked the human family’s first mythic entry into the destruction of hope. Each act of violence robs someone of the future – and to live under the threat of violence steels from us hope that a future can be. Cain’s sin was murder – yes – but the sons and daughters of Cain – you and me – do more than take a life when/if we slaughter Abel. We destroy hope in concentric circles around Abel and fuel the growth of despair and cynicism, of anxiety and of hopelessness.

The pain of hope’s demise is sharp. In fact, what burns so deeply in despair is its close proximity to hope. Despair sees hope and can almost grasp it, but it is frustrated, or its grasp of hope forbidden or refused or suppressed or delayed.

This is so true with violence as well. From the beginning violence – the destruction of a future – has always rested side by side with life – it has been literally “in the space” of the future. But Cain killed his brother not far from life and clearly “in the space” of the future. “Cain said to Abel his brother, ‘let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8 RSV)

The field is a space of the future – it is the context of life and promise, sustenance, and hope. By inviting his brother there he invited him into the space of the future. By murdering him there, Cain took the gift of God, the promise of life, hope, and the future, and he desecrated it – making the promise of life a lure toward destruction – making the future collapse in upon him burying him under its weight.

A simple and tragic story – one repeated hourly in one of a thousand forms – each version, in its own way, extinguishes the future, smashes hope, and replaces it with despair, or with what Gustavo Gutiérrez calls “submissive resignation in the face of historical events.” (God of Life, 107)

From the beginning, faith has been rooted in today but a today textured with promise – held up and drawn into the future of God – whether it was the command to press into the future with confidence: “be fruitful and multiply,” or whether it was the parting words of Jesus: “I will be with you even until the end of the age.” Present action, and grounded ness is built upon the promise of a future which, if God can be trusted to be faithful, would be a “behold it is very good” even as was each day of creation.

Hope is essential for all – but such an essential reality can be and has been trivialized, as have its companions: faith and love. It is a promise of life and future, but it is rooted in the faithfulness of God – call to press into life abundant in God’s future of justice. It is not a neo liberal economic promise, nor a support to capitalistic visions of a better tomorrow; it is a righteousness, and peace.

It is rooted in the kingdom of God, which is breaking into history in every moment when love is permitted to trump hate, and in every moment when violence is overwhelmed by peace.

Gutiérrez writes:  “If the church breaks its link with the Kingdom, it will by that very act lose its transcendent purpose and its ability to be critical of the present.” (God of Life, 107)

I think of the many who are, like Abel, lured “into the space” of the future only to find that future taken away – lured into places of promise and life only to find that they have been seduced into a place of destruction.

The most vulnerable among us, the poor, the immigrant, they are literally tending fields of promise, serving the food of life, caring for the children who are the future of families. These settings, however, have become places where hope is visible and the future in view. Yet, this hope and this future are for many crushed, forbidden, suppressed. “But the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted be crushed forever.” (Psalm 9:18)

Hope is audacious not because it is too stupid to know when to give up. Hope is audacious because it is grounded in God who is too faithful to ever let go. We cannot give hope or be hope by promising what we cannot. We can have hope and be hope when we live into the life and promise of the Kingdom of God.  (Today is lived in the reality of God’s presence today and tomorrow.)

As the church became more and more indistinguishable from the Empire, such hope was cast into Chrono’s future, not God’s. Chrono’s future was another time, another realm. The Kingdom of Empire tended to one’s needs and the justice, peace and order of God’s Kingdom was erased and displaced – “come back in tomorrow’s tomorrow.”

It is, as we are reminded in liberation theology “aquí y ahora” – here and now. It is a future of Jubilee. But the future of God is a future that is today as well as tomorrow – and it is a future that does not play well with those who seduce the hopeful into a space of life only to crush them and steal from them the future God has promised.

As I watched the miners lifted from a tomb in which they had been buried sixty-nine days, I felt as though I was celebrating Easter – the day of the resurrection. In the end, the news report announced: “The last rescuer has surfaced. The mine is empty.” I felt I could reply with integrity – “He is risen, indeed.”

Imagination, ingenuity, determination, and hope brought to a miraculous conclusion a threat to a future – to many futures.

We have had since the beginning the capacity to extinguish hope. But we have had since the beginning the capacity to walk along side God into God’s future – and we have had since the beginning the capacity to do this together.

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[As mentioned in my last post, I’ve asked Ann Riggs if she would contribute to this discussion as the voice of someone who works closely with FUM and within FTC. I am grateful for her perspective here. When I raised questions about US  and Kenya Friends I did so in response to conversations and observations in general, not as an insider with FTC. Therefore, I am even more appreciative of the contribution Ann makes to this conversation. –David Johns]

I write as the head of Friends Theological College. FTC was indeed founded in 1942, under a different name, and operated for many years at a much lower level of academic expectation than the current programs. The current courses of study almost all presuppose a completion of secondary school. All are currently carried out according to the same requirements as apply to similar institutions of higher education in Kenya and the same standards used by accredited institutions of theological education across Africa.

At the time of Kenyan national independence 1963-4, the college was made a responsibility of East Africa Yearly Meeting. In the 1990s that yearly meeting and the FTC board asked Friends United Meeting to assist them by taking the college under its care. As noted in other posts, Friends United Meeting does not “oversee” its member yearly meetings. Indeed the yearly meetings oversee Friends United Meeting, an organ created by and for the yearly meetings. But FUM does oversee Friends Theological College, in service to all the African FUM yearly meetings. The principal of the theological school – a role that in the US would be called its president – works as a member of the FUM field staff and reports to the FUM general secretary and the chairperson of the FTC board of governors. The FTC board and its chairperson are appointed by the Africa section of the FUM general board. The college is lead by an appointee from the United States, then, because African Friends have requested such care.

The burden of David’s discussion, however, is not entirely addressed by simply stating this datum of historical and institutional information. The faculty and administration of Earlham School of Religion are scheduled to visit FTC in June 2011. How might such a visit be thought of so that it makes sense as a gift rather than an imposition, an instance of a larger relationship that serves the needs and dignity of all? Are there paradigms that might be applicable to broader questions of relationship in the post-colonial era?

First and very importantly, most African Quakers are grateful that someone brought them the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. While there are exceptions, most are appreciative of the introduction of new technologies and new forms of social life. They value modern medicine, cell phones and the internet, and a greater equality between women and men than their traditional cultural patterns used. My presence in Kenya and the expertise I bring seem to be viewed by many in similar ways – as an importation of desired resources rather than as a resented intrusion.

In a recent conversation I heard a recent graduate of FTC’s bachelors in theology program, who is now an adjunct faculty member at Friends Theological College, and an applicant to the Earlham School of Religion Access program, speak on the relationship he saw among the secular democratic societies and governments of England, the United States, and Kenya. He described England as the mother country of both the US and Kenya and the US as the older sibling of the more recently independent Kenya. There would certainly be other matters on which this man would speak of Kenya in African terms or of his tribe or sub-tribe in ways that made no reference to England or the US. Yet, the vantage point his remark creates is very important for understanding Kenyan Friends. He thought and spoke in terms of relationship not separation. And the root metaphor of his sense of relationship was familial.

How different from both David’s initiating post and the perspective of the conversation partners he references.
The adage made so widely familiar by South African Desmond Tutu makes African sense not just of the inherently relational character of individual human persons but of larger human communities as well: I am because we are. We are because we all are. Kenyan Friends are because the wide community of the Religious Society of Friends is. The teachers and administrators of Friends Theological College are because there is a wider community of theological educators of which the faculty and administration of Earlham School of Religion are also a part.

Kenyan Friends think very much in terms of ordered family relationships. People introduce one another to their “first born” and “last born” children, to their “elder brother” and “eldest brother.” If Friends in the United States are elder, predate the introduction of Quakerism in eastern Africa by two and a half centuries, then there is an expectation that Friends in the US will have some life experience, some accumulated wisdom gained over those centuries that we have a responsibility to share, especially when requested to do so.

Yet, African Friends also expect to be treated with the life-promoting respect and care that the elder sibling is traditionally expected to show to the younger, the parent to the child. Perhaps a reference to the three-fold understanding of community in African Traditional Religion is helpful: the ancestors, the current generation, and those yet unborn. In this understanding, a family, a community is not complete without this last group, without those yet to be born. Those who lie sleeping in the future generativity of our younger siblings’ children are also members of our community now. In this world view the education of students at Friends Theological College is an appropriate concern of all Friends because these students are the future theological parents of the spiritual children of us all.

Are North American Friends able to think less individualistically, more relationally? Are North American Friends able to accept, despite our anxieties about being paternalistic, the family metaphors that Kenyans find so congenial? Might there not be a richer and more abundant life in so wide a family?

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The response to my blog entry concerning Friends, US and Kenyan, has been lively and vigorous.

Yesterday, while attending the American Academy of Religion sessions in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to speak with the current Principal of Friends Theological College, Ann Riggs. We spoke about this issue and about whether a fuller explanation might help us understand better the relation of Friends in Kenya, and specifically, at FTC. Thus, I’ve invited her to contribute a series of two or three short essays, as a guest of Theography, to help place this in a broader perspective. The conversation will be open. I’m not sure she and I are in agreement on some of these points, but I welcome the contribution of someone working very closely with the situation (as I value Johann Mauer’s reply to the initial post).

I’d encourage you to check out Micah Bales new work on Missional Quaker Faith where he is also raising some of these concerns.

So, please stay tuned… this conversation will continue.

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Not long ago I had a conversation with three Quakers, each from a different part of the US. We talked about Friends in Kenya, the east African country where the largest concentration of Quakers live. I expressed my concerns about an upcoming seminary faculty trip there and how I did not want us to continue the long history of cultural imperialism that dishonors the Other by assuming we have what they need.

We then discussed briefly the denominational body, Friends United Meeting, that provides oversight for many of the yearly meetings (i.e., regional associations) in the country [CORRECTION: ‘provide oversight,’ was my original phrase but is probably not the best description…perhaps, instead: ‘that works in a partnership with’]. I commented, as I often do, that given the demographics and population density of global Quakerism, that the denominational office should relocate to Nairobi or, that we should have more Kenyans working in the central offices here in Richmond, Indiana, or at minimal, we ought relinquish US oversight of Kenyans Quakers.

Since we were talking about education, I mentioned the irony that STILL, we (i.e., white, US Quakers) were in leadership of the major Friends theological training institute in the country, Friends Theological College (FTC).

I’m a professor so I am accustomed to having a room full of people disagree with me. It’s part of the job. However, this conversation was startling. Each person, two women, one man, in his or her own way, stated that Friends can’t be trusted…at least Kenyan Friends. I wasn’t prepared for that.

“They’re not ready yet to have leadership.” (Really? FTC was founded in 1942…that’s 68 years ago.)

“There has been so much corruption in the past, I’m not sure it’s time.” (Friends are no stranger to scandals: financial, sexual, political. To suggest, however, that having a white North American in leadership is a guarantee this will not happen in Kenya is nothing short of insulting.)

“They need someone in leadership who has academic credentials the Kenyan government will acknowledge.” (Ok. I understand this argument.  For accreditation and for public recognition, academic qualifications are crucial. However, what I do not understand is how in over half a century of involvement we have not been able to do what is necessary to minimize this dependency.)

Then came the final blow. One of my conversation partners said: “They don’t trust each other. They want us to be there.”

I do not know whether this is true, but I suspect it is just another one of the self-assuring justifications that have been used for centuries by those who colonize and who subjugate others in the name of a great ideal. In this case, the “ideal” is a version of Quakerism I simply do not recognize.

I want to state in no uncertain terms that I have a great deal of respect for the persons who have been and who are presently providing leadership in FTC. Some of them are personal friends of mine. My concern is not about the personalities but with the principle. This is, it seems to me, the inverse of the last comment made in my conversation with these three Friends. For some, at least, the principle is: “We do not trust them. We want to be there.”

What do you think?

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I serve on a committee at my meeting/church that I hope will soon come to an end. Some committees are “standing” committees, that means their work is ongoing and thus the committee is needed for a long stretch–years, possibly forever. Other committees are ad hoc, or temporary and are formed to take care of a particular task that will come to a close after a certain period of time. I am on the Pastoral Search Committee. Thus, when we discern the right person to serve as pastor and we issue a call (and that call is accepted) this committee will be dissolved.

This is as it should be.

However, it is sometimes not so easy. Occasionally we expect the committees (and let’s add here, organizations, meetings, churches, programs, etc.) we form to last, if not forever, for a very long time. How do we know when something has served its purpose? How do we know when it is time to move on? How do we know when it is time, as Quakers like to say, to “lay it down.”

This is a difficult question. When do we let go of an organization or program? Often our identity is wrapped up in it, or it has been (or continues to be) meaningful to a person, a family, or a group. Thus, letting go is wrapped up in emotional and historical issues as much if not more than in the conviction that its role is still relevant and vibrant.

I am wondering about this because in the past few years two local Friends meetings have been “laid down.” These decisions were not easy and it resulted in some feeling displaced. I am wondering about it also because there are probably a lot of other meetings (and committees and organizations and programs, et al.) that need to follow suit.

However, as difficult as these decisions are, I think it is important that we consider the matter of “laying down.” Why? Because generally, when something is discontinued it is at the end of a long process of decline, decay, and death.

Ok, that seems obvious enough. Yet, I think the time to let go is BEFORE the last breath of life is drawn, before we are writhing on the ground in an extended public demise. In other words, groups that come to a close can and should do so from a position of confidence, life, and some strength. I am not advocating laying down organizations that are thriving. Of course not. However, if we are more attentive to the signs of life and the movement of the Spirit, and if we are less attached to our programs (and committees and meetings and organizations) then perhaps we can reshape, renew, and when it is time, release.

So again, how do we know when something has served its purpose? How do we know when it is time to move on? How do we know when it is time to “lay it down?”

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I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty and the responses I hear from time to time in my work as a professor and in my life as a member of the trying-to-be-faithful community of Jesus’ followers.

Two responses from students over the past few years have made quite an impact on me. Both were very honest statements, but both troubled me deeply. In responses to study abroad trips I led to Latin America, I received responses I hadn’t anticipated (this often happens!)

The first: the student told us (the class) and me (the prof) that for years s/he had desired to work among the poor and to be  an advocate for them, living with them. However, as a result of our trip and after having actually spent time with people who were poor (not the most desperately poor, I might add), s/he concluded there was no way s/he could do it. How could they live the way they do? How could they dress, act, smell, the way they do? And why do they beg and ask me for money?

S/he confessed to feeling shocked and horrified by his/her reactions. Nevertheless, they were real responses, very honest, and I have no doubt that this student returned home having learned something about the world and about his/her own self that was quite unexpected…and troubling.

Secondly, another student, after returning from a study abroad trip I led, came to the conclusion that in the face of poverty and the “underdevelopedness” we saw, s/he was ” glad  to be an American” where we enjoy certain physical comforts and social benefits.

Again, this was some honest reflection, but not what I would have hoped.

Two initial comments: first, neither of these students is a bafoon. Both are intelligent, thoughtful adults, both well into middle-age. Secondly, I’m glad I teach at a seminary where there is not as much peer pressure to appear pious and holy as there is in other settings. It is not institutionally dangerous for a student (or a faculty member, although a little more here) to say, “I don’t believe that just because it is in the Creeds,” or to conclude that they struggle to do what they think they’re supposed to do.

The first student’s response has caused me to think about how even the very good hearted among us often regard persons as categories (I’ve been helped here by Jeorg Reiger’s challenging book, Remember the Poor). No one wants to say out loud, “I don’t care about the poor.” Of course not. Of course we “care about the poor.” However, the social realities of many of our lives is such that most of us don’t know the name of a single person who is, in fact, poor. The poor people are: “the poor.” They are not, my friend, Dania, or even, my enemy, that nameless kid who held a pistol to my head in Cuernavaca. They are abstractions and, as such, they do not really exist.

When faced with the real opportunity to touch humanity as a person with a face and a name, the terms of the experience change dramatically. There are no longer “the gays and lesbians,” for example, but rather, my friend David and his spouse, Jeff. They are not abstractions. All those who are so easily and quickly reduced to non-existence spring to life.

However, from time to time, when we actually meet a real person who concretizes a category for us we are not always prepared. They are not saints–sometimes they are not even nice. They are people. Sometimes we like them and sometimes we don’t. But who can ever be prepared for an ideal to materialize? A romanticized (positively or negatively) vision will rarely disappoint, if we can keep it as a vision.

Many of us, for example, are unprepared for the latent racism that simmers and swells from time to time within us–and I’m not talking about “those bigoted folk.” I’m talking about those of us who, on a good day, believe we are shining examples of evolving humanity!

What do we do with this when it comes?

Of course, the easiest thing to do…and potentially the most visibly pious thing to do, is to support “the poor.” Preach/speak/teach about the value of “the poor,” “the oppressed,” “the widows and orphans,” etc., and even make them the objects and recipients of our charity and financial generosity. But for God’s sake, don’t get close.

A couple years ago a speaker came to our seminaries and spoke eloquently and inspiringly about the work his congregation was doing in the greater Washington, DC area in lobbying congress on behalf of the rights of Latino immigrants. But my level of impressedness sunk to UNimpressedness after I heard this pastor’s response to my question. I asked, is anyone in your congregation learning Spanish (or does anyone already speak Spanish) and how much direct contact does the congregation have with the Latino community? Nada.

The second student’s response has also given me much to think about.

Why was I disappointed with the “I’m glad to be an American” response? Am I hoping my American students will be ashamed of their citzenship and consider renouncing it? Do I hope they’ll be indifferent? I wonder about this about about my motivations, but I don’t believe it is shame or indifference that I’m after. However, some reflection is in order. Is it really so simple as “God has blessed us?” (we’re rightly hesitant to finish what could be a complete thought: “…and has not blessed them.”)

I’m not an economist, but have a friend who is so I’m hesitant to play in the backyard of a discipline about which I know very little. Nevertheless, a simple meditation on what is required to have some of the things which I enjoy as an American ought to give me pause.

As I write, there is still a hemorrhaging oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico which is not only threatening US coasts, but also coasts in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz. The image of this pipe is, for me, a profane modern Crucifix. “The pipe is bleeding for you and for me. ” It is, in all the terms appropriate to some theologies, an offering for me on behalf of my actions.

I realize full well that staring into the face of poverty is painful, particularly when one meditates on the possibility of being complicit in its existence.

Where is grace and how do we think about grace in such matters?

….more to come

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