Category Archives: ethics

Family Policy Lecture at Family Research Council

Next Wednesday at 12:30pm, one week from today, I’ll be giving the Family Policy Lecture at the Family Research Council in Washington, D. C.  My lecture is entitled “The Sacrificial Witness of the Christian Moral Tradition” and will span history, theology, ethics and public policy.  I will engage the liberal Protestant tradition and its understanding of public square involvement in the course of the lecture.

I am honored to give this lecture, which has featured speakers like Os Guinness, Eric Metaxas, and Ross Douthat, but I am excited to speak on this topic at a thinktank that is doing a great deal to contend for the faith in the public square.

Here are the details from FRC:

The Christian influence in Western society has played a vital role in shaping our nation and the world. Many, such as the great British abolitionist William Wilberforce, have used their Christian faith to inform and drive moral policies. To divorce the Christianity of these men and women from their political action would do a disservice both to them and to history itself.

In today’s world Christianity is often seen as a religious relic of the past. Dr. Owen Strachan issues a clarion call to the next generation of Christians to realize the times demand a strong biblically-grounded, moral witness. Born out of a spirit of sacrifice and humility Christians, must speak out for godliness and righteousness in our public sphere. Dr. Strachan will explain what must be done if the great Christian witness of the past is to once again influence our culture and its government.

You can register for the live-stream here.  You are of course welcome to fly to DC to hear this lecture–consider yourself invited, in fact.  But the live-stream might just work better for some.

By the way, FRC is currently leading the charge for Dr. Angela McCaskill, who was suspended from her post at Gallaudet  University for supporting traditional marriage by signing a petition.  You can show support for McCaskill by going here.  I would encourage you to do so.

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The Monumentally Inspiring Example of Wilberforce

I don’t know about you, but if you’re involved in some way in the fight against abortion, it can be easy to get discouraged.

Usually I blog about a more current matter, but today I feel the need to go back and read a really encouraging story.  William Wilberforce labored for decades to see the slave trade–and slavery–abolished.  As many will know, his efforts proved monumentally successful.  I’m hoping that the Lord will raise up a Wilberforce in our day who will see us through to the outlawing of abortion.

Read more on Wilberforce’s life in Eric Metaxas’s dramatic and inspiring biography (and watch the well-done movie, too).  Here’s a brief snatch from the BBC about his life and work.  Read it and be inspired, and remember: it’s not the wicked who have grounds to be courageous.

In 1780, Wilberforce became member of parliament for Hull, later representing Yorkshire. His dissolute lifestyle changed completely when he became an evangelical Christian, and in 1790 joined a leading group known as the Clapham Sect. His Christian faith prompted him to become interested in social reform, particularly the improvement of factory conditions in Britain.

The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson had an enormous influence on Wilberforce. He and others were campaigning for an end to the trade in which British ships were carrying black slaves from Africa, in terrible conditions, to the West Indies as goods to be bought and sold. Wilberforce was persuaded to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade and for 18 years he regularly introduced anti-slavery motions in parliament. The campaign was supported by many members of the Clapham Sect and other abolitionists who raised public awareness of their cause with pamphlets, books, rallies and petitions. In 1807, the slave trade was finally abolished, but this did not free those who were already slaves. It was not until 1833 that an act was passed giving freedom to all slaves in the British empire.

Wilberforce’s other efforts to ‘renew society’ included the organisation of the Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1802. He worked with the reformer, Hannah More, in the Association for the Better Observance of Sunday. Its goal was to provide all children with regular education in reading, personal hygiene and religion. He was closely involved with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He was also instrumental in encouraging Christian missionaries to go to India.

If you’re out there and you’re in this fight, see it through.  Remember: the “righteous are bold as a lion,” Proverbs 28:1 tells us.  Wilberforce did not quit in his effort to oppose the scourge of racism and cruelty known as the slave trade–and slavery more broadly.  We should not quit either.

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Is it Wrong to RT Yourself?

Recently, I wrote about “your best image now” based on a WSJ essay on bragging and social media.  The piece raised many good questions for me, including one I’ve been turning over in my mind for a long time: is it wrong for me to RT material about me?

So you know, “RT” doesn’t “Remotely Tazer” or “Radically Transgress.”  It means “re-tweet,” and so it applies to Twitter.  If someone says something nice about you–”@collinhansen wrote a great story”–should you RT it, and pass it along to all of your followers?  Is that fine, or is it a violation of Proverbs 27:2, which reads: “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips”?

This is a complex matter, as I said a few days ago.  Social media has changed things.  It’s tricky to know where to find exact boundaries.  Some would say, of course, that you should never RT material about yourself, because yes, it is a direct violation of Proverbs 27:2.  I get that.  I’m sensitive to it.  In fact, in many cases, if someone has said something complimentary about my writing/speaking, I purposefully do not re-tweet it.  I suppose that this is a policy rather than an unbroken law, but it is indeed my general rule.

But other situations raise more complex questions.  If a news outlet, say The Gospel Coalition, has sent out word to their followers about a piece I’ve written, should I RT it?  Or if a small media company has done a video with a pastor about sanctification that aims at building believers up in the faith, should he RT it?  In both of these instances, I can see an argument for passing on word about it to people who might want to see it.  There is, after all, a ton of media produced nowadays.  If you want content to be consumed and actually helpful to people, you may feel a desire to do your part and notify people about it.

I do this with Facebook and Twitter.  If I blog here, I’ll post it on both of these outlets.  That lets people know about it.  And if a site is running a piece I’ve written, I’ll often let folks know about it.  In doing so, by the way, I feel a tension.  There is a gray area in such decisions.  Am I being self-promoting?  Well, maybe.  I can be honest about that.  Is that my primary motivation?  I certainly hope not.

So I guess I can say this: I understand never RTing yourself.  But many of us who want to edify and strengthen God’s people and promote the gospel find ourselves in a brave new media world where publishers and sites actually kind of count on you to publicize your content and put it before its target audience.  Many of us who are not currently blockbuster authors must therefore travel to the aforementioned “gray area” with regularity.  To RT or not to RT?  That is the question.

Here’s where I land.  I want to be scrupulous about self-promotion.  So that’s my first priority.  (Feel free to sound off in the comments–is my model self-promoting?)  My second priority is to try and put good resources before people in a non-invasive way.  That seems to be part of the work of writing and contending and speaking today.  I see the gray area, and I try to focus on getting out gospel-driven material, much as doing so–like preaching or pastoring or leading or almost any human activity–places me in the possible position of self-exaltation.

In all of this, I am aware of my sin and human penchant for self-deception.  I am constantly reminded by the nature of questions like this one of my need to confess sin to God and to ask the Spirit to continue changing me into the image of Christ in a comprehensive, holistic, across-all-plaforms kind of way.

(Image: retweet.com)

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Your Best Image Now

The Wall Street Journal just published a provocative piece, “Are We All Braggarts Now?,” on bragging in the modern era.  The author, Elizabeth Bernstein, began this insightful essay by riffing off of Facebook status updates:

Best gift ever from the best husband ever.

Swam 30 minutes at a very fast time despite the large amount of Chardonnay served to me on the plane last night.

Got my first royalty check for my book!

Sunset sail. Turned into a moonlight sail. Shooting stars everywhere…Perfect.

A benign reading would be that these are just typical daily updates. But folks, this is bragging, whether you recognize it or not. And it’s out of control. How did this happen?

You should read the whole piece, really.  As Bernstein says, “We’ve become so accustomed to boasting that we don’t even realize what we’re doing.”  Yup.

We need to think about material like this.  Let’s just admit it: social media makes it difficult not to boast.  It’s set up to help us broadcast ourselves.  This doesn’t mean that we have to brag or present ourselves as living flawless and perfectly happy lives.  But it does mean that it’s pretty easy to behave in these ways, and to dishonor God by making much of ourselves, not him (contra texts like John 3:30).

I’ll be honest with you: I struggle to know where the boundaries are in this modern world.  I’ve made the choice to be on social media.  I do try in my use of it to be focused on, well, God, and beyond him on ideas.  But I promote my content–following most of the top new media, I post links to my blogs on Facebook and Twitter.  Is the self-promotion?  Or is it self-promotion when an author plugs their book on Twitter?  It can be easy to answer this kind of question reflexively–of course not! or absolutely!  Many Christians, after all, do black and white great, but ethical complexity?  Not so much.

For my part, I want to do my best to keep the focus on God, his gospel, and meaningful ideas.  I know I don’t do that perfectly.  But I want to avoid bragging and self-promoting.  And it’s not attractive at all when people present a kind of “best image now” on social media.  It’s good to celebrate God’s goodness to us–one of the reasons I’m on new media and not holed up in a cabin in Vermont!–but when you make every trip and drink and beach outing and church service and family photo seem like it’s the apex of human culture and the ideal of human flourishing, maybe you’re over the line.

My tentative, personally driven recommendation: make your life about big things, as best you can.  Pray regularly to be humble and not promote yourself.  Invite feedback from family, friends, and fellow church members on “best practices.”  Here’s a controversial one: if you do use social media, strive to keep your “private life” (the very term sounds ancient) private.  Forget what the gurus say–if you’re going to use Facebook, make sure you prize privacy.  An inner life, whether personal, familial, or congregational, is in my view very healthy.

Share ideas, connect, encourage, edify, sharpen on social media–but don’t “live online.”  That’s unhealthy.

Some things should be private.  And some things–like bragging or presenting your best image now–just shouldn’t be done.  You don’t need to be perfect; you’re not.  I’m not.  Not everything goes stupendously.  You don’t have to “win” at all times, to quote that great modern philosopher, Charlie Sheen.  Jesus is your sufficiency, your perfection, and your identity.

And you and I desperately need his church, and its laser focus not on ourselves but on him, to puncture our natural egotism, our overweening pride, and to lock us in on nothing other than his sheer magnificence and love.

(Image: MK Perker/WSJ)

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What to Learn from the Zakaria & Lehrer Plagiarism Scandals

If you follow journalism as I do, you’re aware that it’s a big deal when a big-time journalist is busted for plagiarism.  Stephen Glass.  Jayson Blair.  It’s not every day that a major-media figure gets in hot water for passing off someone else’s work as their own, though I haven’t heard much evangelical talk about these events.

In recent weeks, not one but two major public intellectuals have been caught plagiarizing.  Fareed Zakaria, editor-at-large of Time and host of CNN’s “GPS,” used New Yorker writer Jill Lepore’s material without attribution in Time.  Jonah Lehrer, staff writer for the New Yorker (oddly related to both scandals), made up quotations from Bob Dylan for his best-selling Imagine (which I actually blogged a while back when it came out!).  Zakaria is presently suspended from Time and CNN, while Lehrer has been fired from the New Yorker (image to the left from Nina Subin/NYT).

Again, this may not be of interest to you–but it’s a very big deal in the world of ideas.  Both of these men play a big role in that world, and both have–or had–major platforms from which to broadcast their views.  Not incidentally, both did quite well for themselves–apparently Lehrer was drawing up to $20,000 per speech for his blend of pop-science and pop-psychology.  Though their fall from favor is difficult to witness, it’s also heartening to see our society respond to cheating and thievery in moral and ethical terms.  God’s common grace is at work in our world, much as it may appear otherwise at times.

What does this mean for the rest of us?  These scandals show the limits of even the most gifted person.  Both Zakaria and Lehrer are, from even a quick glance at their bios, overcommitted to the point of near-lunacy.  Ambition is a taxing master, and an evil one.  Lehrer writes for multiple outlets, travels constantly, and in his downtime writes best-sellers.  Zakaria hosts a show, writes a column, and also travels a great deal.  You and I may not be facing the schedules of these two figures, but it is incumbent upon us to structure our lives in a way that makes sense, a way that accords with the kind of biblical wisdom you find in the book of Proverbs.

Those of who are ambitious–and there is a godly form of it, no doubt–need the rhythms of church, family, service, and friendship to steer us away from our worst selves.  If we make ourselves too busy, we will do nothing well, and our lives will suffer in numerous areas.  I remember being disappointed at the hashed-over nature of a major evangelical leader’s talk.  I told my then-boss that I had heard 75% of the talk, which I had been eagerly anticipating, in previous years.  My boss then said, “Well, if you don’t give yourself any time to think and refresh, that’s what you’ll end up doing–regurgitating and rehashing.”  And plagiarizing.

And getting booted from your platforms.

So: do less.  Write less than you could.  Turn stuff down.  Practice the fine art of saying “no.”  Rest in God’s sovereignty and trust that He will get you to where you need to go.  Learn from scandals like these (and harrowing and moving testimonies like this from Jayson Blair).  And when you do write, be careful with your sources.  We all are human on this point, and need to constantly strive for excellence, and make corrections when we’re wrong–and none of us are above tumbling down our own hill of dreams.

And finally, pray for journalists and thought-leaders like Zakaria and Lehrer who have staked so much, so very much, on getting ahead and being the best.

They–and we–need a gospel that frees them from the slavery of unchecked ambition and the impossibility of failure.  They need a gospel that takes all their sins, nails them to wood, and puts them to death.

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Why Tipping at Restaurants Speaks to Your Walk with Christ

Raymond Johnson, a PhD student at Southern Seminary, just published a very helpful essay on tipping and the gospel at Baptist Press, the official media outlet of the Southern Baptist Convention.  It’s worth reading and considering.  Here’s a snatch:

Whether Christians are aware of it or not, a subpar tip is a stumbling block in communicating the Gospel. It causes unbelieving servers to think that we, as Christians, value money over everything and everyone else (1 Timothy 6:10). So, my coworker, like many other servers, interprets such actions (poor tips from alleged Christian people) as stingy. Tragically, the result — though it may be unfair — is that many servers have identified the majority of Christians as a contingent of people who care little for others. They hear Christians promise them that God is just and fair and that He is a generous King who is lavish with His mercy and kind toward others. Christians promise them that the Gospel they preach is for all people right before they metaphorically clinch their money in their fist and tip poorly; refusing money to laborers who are worthy of their wages (1 Timothy 5:18; Matthew 10:10).

Read the whole thing.

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Youth Football & Collisions: Really, Really, Really Bad News

ESPN just released this frightening data from the first study of youth football and the impact of head-to-head collisions:

The first-ever study to measure the head impacts among youth football players has found that some hits absorbed by second graders are as forceful as those in the college game, and that unlike at in high school and college football most of the severe hits occurred during practices.

More:

The sample size was small, just seven players in a Virginia youth league between the ages of seven and eight. But its findings will help shape the debate about safety measures — and for some whether children should participate at all — in youth football, which is played by 3.5 million children below high school age. The average player in the study sustained 107 head impacts during the course of 9.4 practices and 4.7 games.

Most of those hits were modest in force, as measured by sensors installed in the padding of helmets. But some topped 80 g’s, similar to “some of the more severe impacts that college players experience, even though the youth players have less body mass and play at slower speeds,” the authors wrote. Boys of grade school and middle school age often lack the neck strength of teenagers, among other factors that can make them vulnerable to injury.

Read the whole piece (with thanks to Denny Burk).  It is positively chilling.

I wrote a piece on this kind of evidence two years ago for First Things Grantland recently published a piece that mused out loud whether football will be outlawed in the future in America; Malcolm Gladwell wondered the same a few years back in the New Yorker.  I don’t know what the future holds for American football, but it should be clear to anyone who cares about children that the physical nature of the game is jeopardizing their health.

Note that this is just the first study on this matter.  More will come. I suspect we will find exactly what many mothers and grandmothers have known by way of common sense for decades: that football as it is currently played is far more dangerous than we pretend it is.  In other words, I think many of us intuitively know that the game, though very fun and not wrong by nature, is in its present form nearly gladiatorial.  We treat the sport as if it’s low-risk, but in reality it is not.  It is high-risk.

There is a real challenge for Christians here.  I’m not saying that we cannot participate in or enjoy football, but studies like this one should alarm us.  Football is very dangerous for children, youth, and adults as it’s currently played.  Are we going to write material like this off?  Or will we realize that athletics fall under ethics, and help to lead the national conversation about how we can reform football to make it much safer?

Why have many Christians been silent on this issue?  Readers of this blog know that I love sports.  But I can’t love them more than I love wisdom, right?  The old translation of Proverbs 4:7 says it nicely: “In all your getting, get wisdom.”  I love that.  May we strive together on this point.

Some might counter by saying “football’s a way of life where I’m from.”  I understand that, but isn’t this whole gospel-driven movement about bringing all of life, not just your eternal destination, under the Lordship of Christ?  After all, setting widows on fire was a part of life in 19th-century India, but William Carey, heroic Baptist missionary, led the charge against that practice.  I hope that we will remember, with the Reformers, that Scripture is the “norm that norms all other norms” and bring the full force of the biblical conscience to a game that, though a gift of God’s common grace, is in dire need of Christian influence and wisdom.

(Image: Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

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Want $66,000 a Year? Write Papers for Students! (Ethics Optional)

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently released a chilling story that you should know about.  The CHI piece is called “The Shadow Scholar” and it’s authored by a paper mill writer under the name of “Ed Dante.”  You can read the whole thing here.  Reader’s Digest picked it up for their May 2011 edition, which has mainstreamed it.

For educators, parents, and Christian citizens interested in the general state of American education, this essay is essential reading.  Here’s a snippet:

In the past year, I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won’t find my name on a single paper.

The author lists off papers that he has written:

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

This total would be impressive if it didn’t depend upon academic sin.

Read the whole piece; it’s breathtaking.  The author reveals that he is one of 50 writers at his essay mill and is generally working on 20 papers at any given moment.  Most of us would be aware that some kind of company exists, but the piece exposes the ugliness of this practice with unusual force and clarity.  Right now, there are companies, structured in all the normal ways with HR departments and 401ks and outdated microwaves, that employ people to do essentially nothing but aid people in cheating.  That’s sick.  People go to work, collect a paycheck, and go about their business, all the while contributing singlehandedly to the deterioration of the western mind.

As a college professor who takes a vested interest in developing the writing skills of his students, this is particularly disheartening.  If you are a professor of most any kind, this piece discloses at least a part of your future reality.  This kind of cancer is only going to have an exponential effect over time.  Why?  It’s already hard to teach writing, something like training people to catch fish with their bare hands.  It’s an art that depends on the cultivation of many skills.  If students are paying people to do their writing, they are not learning the craft.  At no place in the academic process, which is designed to grow and stretch students, are they developing writing skills.  The professor, furthermore, wastes his or her time in grading these papers.  A company that should not exist only stands to increase its business with the achievement of a good grade as the student spreads positive (if clandestine) word of mouth.  A rotten system grows more rotten still.  This sort of system is only encouraged by a university culture that has long since bid farewell to normative Christian ethics.

Ethics are intrusive things.  Many folks today don’t want rock-ribbed religion.  They want grab-and-go faith, open-menu spirituality–pick this, leave that, pay as you go.  Yet trends like that described above show that our culture rues its distance from the cold clarity of Christian theology and ethics.  The Chronicle will not be confused with Our Daily Bread anytime soon, and yet it clearly disapproves of essay mills.  Any sane person would.  Yet whence cometh the foundation for a critique of such a practice, booming as it is?

Christians are in the business of teaching truth truly.  We take education with the utmost seriousness, seeking whether in the church, the home or the academy to leave the hearts of our students burning as we instruct them in a Christotelic worldview (Luke 24:32).   It is right that we grow concerned and even upset by essay mills.  It is also right that we strive to teach students well and to train them to think and write with excellence. Writing is an essential skill, after all.  Our faith stems from words written down, does it not?

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Carl Henry: Ethics Proceed from Atonement

Sometimes we hear Christianity spoken of as a system of salvation, a means by which we find God.  At other times we hear Christianity spoken of as a way of life, a code of conduct.

Carl F. H. Henry, dean of twentieth-century evangelical theologians, shows how the two are bound by a cord that one cannot cut.  Copy and paste this text–you’ll want to save it for future reference.

“Christianity is a religion of redemption, and it is equally an ethics of salvation. Christian salvation is no unmoral and unspiritual scheme. From start to finish, in and through the atonement, its ideal life is a life of vital ethical experience through a living union with Christ.

While it may be true that examples can be found of those who presume on Divine goodness by living a life of unholiness while they fool themselves with the hope that they will escape the consequences of their sins through Christ’s sacrifice, this is not characteristic of the evangelical temper. Note the sobering word of James: “show me your works and I will show you your faith” (Jas. 2:18). The atonement is regarded as God’s counter-stroke to sin. While the penal theory does not start out with the subjective significance of the atonement, nonetheless it firmly insists that the atonement must directly touch and transform the moral life of man.”

From his exceptional essay, “Christian Ethics as Predicated on the Atonement” in Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 375.

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Peter Singer’s “Ethics”: A Strange and Telling Story

From the Kairos Journal, exceptional commentary on how over ten years ago, Princeton ethicist Peter Singer acted against his own moral philosophy:

“In 1998 amid much furor, Singer was appointed Professor of Bioethics at Princeton’s Center for Human Values. His controversial views on animal liberation and biomedical ethics, particularly his argument that euthanasia, infanticide, and abortion are not merely permissible in certain circumstances, but morally obligatory, have become prominent in both philosophical literature and the media. The author of over twenty books, Singer has a reputation for being rigorous and rational—he appears to be a true creature of logic.

However in the late 1990s, Singer’s mother, Cora, once an intellectually active and vibrant woman, became ill with Alzheimer’s disease before dying in August 2000. She no longer recognized him, his sister, or any of her grandchildren. As a member of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, Cora had always said that she did not want to live if she was not physically and mentally capable. Despite Singer’s intellectual belief in euthanasia, he could never kill his mother. So when she became too ill to live alone, Singer and his sister hired a team of home healthcare aides to look after her at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per year.

Singer did what many people would do for their parents. His actions were normal and humane, but they were utterly inconsistent with Singer’s utilitarian ethic. His mother had lost her ability to reason, to remember, and to recognize others; she had “ceased to be a person in her son’s technical sense of the term.” Singer’s philosophical principles meant that he ought to have given the money that he spent on his mother’s care to the poor. When asked to justify his actions, he replied that it was “probably not the best use you could make of my money. That is true. But, it does provide employment for a number of people who find something worthwhile in what they’re doing.”

However, this fancy footwork does not obscure the fact that, on Singer’s own terms, his actions were self-interest, not charity. Furthermore, they clash with his contention that, to maximize human utility, friends and family ought to be treated no differently than strangers. His honesty emerges when pressed on the matter: “I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult . . . Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it’s your mother.” Later, he admitted that, had he been the only one making the decision, he would have likely withheld the treatment; but, because his sister and other family members were involved, compassion and prolonged life prevailed.”

*********************

Stories like this illuminate the importance of practicing what one preaches.  If one’s behavior undermines one’s worldview, this causes serious legitimacy problems for one’s worldview.  As Christians, we need to remember this, and back up our beliefs with our lives.  If we say that Christ is all, for example, but spend our time and energy pursuing things of this world, will unbelievers listen to us when we preach the world-denying gospel?

If not, can we blame them?

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