Tag Archives: Compassion

Has the American Dream Died, or Did It Just Fall Asleep?

The American Dream Has Become a Nightmare

by Pastor Paul J. Bern

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The “American Dream” has at its core an escape from the real world to build a personalized utopia, a custom-made fantasy island of sorts. When we were taught to pursue this dream back when, we were ‘taught’ that if we work hard and diligently enough we’ll be able to make enough money to buy a house in the ‘right’ neighborhood so our kids go to the ‘right’ schools and buy enough stuff so as to please ourselves, stay even economically with our neighbors and relatives, and shut out the rest of the world so we can keep it all to ourselves. But the house and our neighborhood are not the only part of our island. Our cars and our Internet gives us the power to choose almost everything such as where we work, or where our houses or churches are. Not to mention who our friends are, too. Our cars allow us to escape what we don’t like about the neighborhoods we must sometimes live in.

If that is not enough, our TVs and our Internet connections allow us to filter out whatever else could intrude on us. Not that we need help to filter out what is unpleasant, the ‘lame stream media’ does that for us already. All one has to do is talk to those who are from other countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Israel/Gaza. Our media protects us from the real life negative stories about what our country and corporations do to others. In lieu of the unpleasant truth, our media reports only that which does not interfere with our consumption of their sponsors’ products. And out of that small selection that is left from all of this filtering, we use the remote to choose shows based on how they make us feel. What a dumb life this is! Ever considered turning off your cable TV and pocketing that money each month? Thank God we have the alternative media outlets such as Israeli News Live, We Are Change, SGT Report, Jason A and many, many other high-quality channels or websites to choose from!

Christendom as a whole sees this self-imposed isolation by its secular fellow Americans as an affirmation of his own similarly withdrawn theology. For example, I rarely see any articles or postings that call into question the extreme immorality of waging war. In its place their articles, Christian books and TV shows are concerned with fine theological points, pointless evangelical arguments, how to better manage church services, all about miracles real or imagined or engineered, and all the while oftentimes overemphasizing fund raising.

But it is not just the articles that show how we distance ourselves, but we use our gospel of individual salvation to shut out what we find disturbing. We so reduce our standing before God – in our own eyes – to our current state of inner self and beliefs that we become hyper vigilant over ourselves while ignoring the needs of others. As a result, we become agitated and even panicked when the concerns of the world ask for our time. And it isn’t just the negativity of the news that disturbs us, it is its complexity. Since things are simple when we only have to care for ourselves, we prefer to pay as little attention as possible to others. The apostle Paul wrote, “we have the mind of Christ”, but some ‘Christians’ aren’t acting like it.

And when we do see and respond to the suffering of others, it is only to a chosen few fellow Christians or to those whom we cannot avoid. But such an approach to helping others goes against what the Bible teaches. Isaiah chapters 58 and 59 and Jeremiah 22:16 (“He defended the cause of the poor and the needy, and so all went well. ‘Is that not what it means to know me’, says the Lord?”) closely tie helping those in need with having seen the light. Likewise, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (see Matt. 25, verses 21-46) not only taught that those who helped others in need were the sheep who received eternal life, it also showed that those who neglected the needy, looking after only themselves, were banished from heaven forever! He also demonstrated this latter principle in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

In Jesus’ parable of the rich man, who built extra barns to hold the excess of his harvest and told himself to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow he could die – well, sure enough, he did. He begged Lazarus from the fires of hell to give him just one drop of cool water, but Lazarus could not. Last in my list is the book of Proverbs, containing such tasty nuggets of wisdom as, “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (chapter 14, verse 31), and “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor, and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them” (chapter 22, verses 22-23).

But perhaps the most pathetic way that Christians fail in their missions of service, prayer and worship is by blindly submitting to authority. It is not that Christians are not called to submit to those in authority – quite the contrary! But many of today’s Christians do so as a way of shielding themselves from the risks that come with confronting evil, such as opposing corruption and speaking truth to power (think Rev. Dr. King, the Kennedy brothers, Huey Long, Malcolm X, and many more like them). Submission to authority, then, is sometimes practiced not in order to love God and others, but to secure for oneself the kind of world that is most comfortable.

And so when evil prevails in either the private or public sector, this legitimate command to submit to the authorities is used to hide the very ones who are perpetrating evil and mayhem, and especially government and workplace corruption. But not only are we negligent in our Christian duty when we fail to confront those who abuse their power, we also become complicit in their evil ways. And we do so in order to ride on the coattails of evil and power rather than risk any reprisal for challenging it. If we as a people – regardless of religious affiliation or the lack thereof – continue to allow abusive and corrupt authority to run our country, we will soon lose it forever.

Martin Luther King faced this very dilemma when he stood up to the legalized racism and racial hatred that was rampant in the American South. He wanted to honor and follow the commandment in Romans 13 that told him to submit to the authorities. At the same time, he knew that many authorities were enforcing unjust laws while allowing abuse and even murder. He could have submitted and just gone along with the status quo and he would have avoided making himself a target. But that would have been the coward’s way out! Had he remained quiet, others would have continued to suffer horribly. So King concluded that he could meet both responsibilities by using political dissent and organized passive resistance as forms of peaceful protest. When arrested, he made no effort to resist. He did not challenge the authority of the police, but he most definitely did challenge the validity of unjust laws and the society that profited from that authority. The institutionalized racism that Rev. Dr. King stood against exists to this very day! What are white or Caucasian Christians doing about this?

There is a Biblical reason why the American Dream is so desirable to Christians. It is because we see the American Dream as the Garden of Eden restored and thus it’s our Christian duty to make it so. In fact, some think that the purpose of God’s Word is to make Paradise accessible again, not understanding that we who call upon the name of the Lord are destined for a Paradise that will put the Garden of Eden to shame. Such Christians argue that basing one’s life on God’s Word is like following the right blueprints when constructing a building, and they have a point. The more we follow God’s Word, the more we can avoid the hazards of sin. But the big question becomes, did God give us His word to return us to the Garden or to help us through the wilderness? But before answering that question, we must understand why would Jesus commanded us to collect our treasures in heaven rather than on earth, and why the writer of the book of Hebrews tells us we are to look for a new home to come rather than a home here.

To believe that God’s Word tells us how to regain Paradise is inaccurate, to put it nicely. By the same token, the real attraction to the American Dream isn’t the opportunity to restore what was lost but to worship what can be found – the twin false gods of money and materialism. The American Dream is a monasticism with benefits. Its preachers assure us that we can be righteously selfish. The “prosperity gospel” is taught in churches like a canned sales pitch, and is gleefully and mistakenly received as truth by the gullible. It allows us to flee from what is unpleasant and distasteful in the world while enjoying its corruptible fruit. This makes America a trap for 21st century Christians. For when we try to take what we want instead of waiting on God, we become deaf and blind to both the world God wants us to share His love with, as well as our own depleted spiritual conditions.

My conclusion, then, is to reject materialism and the pursuit of economic gain! Jesus said, “One cannot serve two masters. He/she will either love one and despise the other, or cling to one while rejecting the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon (materialism)”. Choose today whom or what you will serve in life. You can either pursue wealth and material goods, or you can pursue a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and all that goes with it. There is so much more to choosing Christ than there is to choosing riches, which can be here one day and gone the next without warning. One cannot serve them both, since from the vantage point of the believer they are in opposite directions from each other.

Our wealth and possessions die with us or are willed to others after we are gone, but Jesus Christ lives today, tomorrow, and forever! It is He and he alone that is the correct choice for us to make. It is Christ alone who offers us the eternal salvation our souls urgently need. Right now would be a perfectly good time to do this (for those readers who haven’t already done so). Simply pray within yourself to Jesus and ask Him to take charge of your life. It doesn’t matter how you surrender to him, just do it. He always does a perfect job anyway, so there is no profit in resisting him. Ask Jesus now, he is waiting eagerly for you! And he loves you unconditionally!

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Justice, mercy, and the ending of the West Virginia teacher’s strike

Progressive Christianity, Worker’s Rights and Social Justice

by pastor Paul J. Bern

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The recent settlement of the West Virginia teacher’s strike, which resulted in a 5% pay raise after lasting for nearly two weeks, will soon echo across the landscape of American labor, and hopefully for the entire world as well. People everywhere – and I mean globally – are literally starving for a pay raise. Today’s labor market – not just in America but globally – already has within it the seeds of revolution, and the people are most definitely ready to rise up, if only I could get you all to turn off your damned televisions and gaming consoles!! This isn’t about religion, this is about justice and equality, and the Bible has plenty to say about both. So, for those of you who may think the Bible is some antiquated rule book that has lost its relevance, allow me to set the record straight.

In Psalm 106 verse 3, it says, “Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right.” In Proverbs 29 verse 4, it says, “By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.” Come to think of it, I’m going to send that Bible verse to every member of Congress in Washington, D.C.! The prophet Isaiah lamented the lack of justice in his own time – so this problem is not new – when he wrote, “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, and honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes prey. The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice.” Here’s one more sample of the mind of Almighty God: “And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts, do not think evil of each other’.” All of the above truths were brought sharply into focus most recently by the West Virginia teacher’s strike. The ugly truth we all must face is this – if our net take-home pay won’t even cover the most basic of living expenses, we are economic slaves! Rather than elaborate here, allow me to post an excerpt of my first book from 2011, now in its third updated edition. Enjoy!

The Ongoing Battle for Worker’s Rights Across America

(excerpt from, “The Middle and Working Class Manifesto”, by Rev. Paul J. Bern)

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America has become a ticking time bomb of inequality and lack of opportunity. The rights of US workers have been trampled underfoot by the rich multinational corporations and the top 1% elite, who have outsourced all our jobs overseas as they leave us high and dry on the island of minimum wage jobs with no futures. There are also a growing number of employed people who, despite having a job, are still living in poverty. There are at least 19 million US workers who now fall into this rapidly growing category. The median US income of $35,000.00 a year is not going to get you far in today’s economy, and half of the country is making less than that. The reason we struggle with these things is because the Economic Elite have robbed us all through the systematic confiscation of middle class wealth, security and prosperity. This has caused tremendous suffering among workers throughout the world, it is no less than a criminal act, and it is the result of the largest single transfer of wealth in all of human history from the world’s middle classes to the rich.

 

 

The first thing on any list of worker’s rights is that of a fair and realistic minimum wage, and more fundamentally, the basic human right to a decent livelihood. Unemployment as we have previously known it must now come to an end forever. This does not mean unemployment will be eliminated, but periods of unemployment can and should be converted to times of retraining to acquire new skills or to even completely change careers. What gives any wealthy corporate 1%’er CEO or their subordinates the right to tell anybody, “Sorry, you are not needed around here anymore. Your skills, experience, and your work ethic no longer matter here. Our company’s bottom line and the interests of our shareholders are far more important than that of our workers.” This is the essence of what it means to be fired. In my view, this is demeaning to the point of being abusive, and it is therefore an abuse of authority.

 

This brings me to the point that I wish to make. In today’s world, if the net take-home pay of any given individual does not meet, or just barely meets, that same individual’s daily cost of living, then that is tantamount to economic slavery. Let me say that again because this point simply cannot be overemphasized. If your take-home pay won’t even take you home, you are a slave. Oh, you are free to move around and to come and go as you choose and take care of business, that is true. But if after you go to the grocery store, pay the light bill (assuming you are fortunate enough to be able to do that), put gas in your tank (assuming you are lucky enough to still own a car) and set some money aside for this month’s rent or mortgage (if you’re not already on the street or living with relatives) – and then, after all that you peek into your wallet and realize that you have $7.00 left to live on for the whole stinking’ week, that’s when you know you are a slave! What happens to the people whose incomes are at or below minimum wage? They go hungry and are often homeless. Many of these newly homeless, formerly middle class people also have kids who have fallen into poverty along with their parents. As I write this, it is profoundly sad to report that 1 in every 5 American kids will be homeless at some point in their childhoods. And this is happening in the United States of America, supposedly the richest country in the world? This is a moral outrage, a social injustice, and it is economic discrimination of the worst kind!

Since it is an issue of economic discrimination (regardless of race or religion), it also becomes a 21st century civil rights issue creating a demand for fundamental change in the way our economy works and the way our government works. This too, then, is cause for protests, demonstrations, boycotts, occupations, general strikes and other forms of peaceful civil disobedience. On this point alone, there are enough issues on the collective dinner plate of the American people to foster open revolt throughout the land. Never mind everything else that I have written about. Think about it for a minute. How does it feel to be a slave? Makes you feel kind of angry, doesn’t it? Maybe even violated on a certain level, like we’ve been raped? The time to rise up and say, “No more!” has arrived. It’s time for all of us to get out from in front of out TV’s and our gaming consoles and computers and to get our backsides out in the streets and start protesting – a lot! And that’s just for this issue alone. Now allow me to point out a couple of subcategories.

 

The first sub-category under worker’s rights is the right to better and more comprehensive unemployment insurance, and to also allow some independent contractors to draw unemployment provided certain conditions are met (subject to future legislation or referendum). Any worker who has lost his or her job through no fault of their own will be entitled to up to 52 weeks of unemployment compensation instead of the current maximum of 26 weeks due to a continued turnover in the job markets of most developed countries, starting with the US. Besides their job search, at any time during the worker’s period of unemployment he or she should have two other options available to them to assist in the development of their careers. The first should be the ability to sign up for public works projects to obtain immediate employment if it is needed. (The worker’s second option will be reeducation, and I will touch on that one next so please bear with me). Workers will be required to choose one of the above to qualify for benefits. We have been needing massive public works projects to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure for decades. I would conservatively estimate that anywhere from 1-3 million people could be employed this way as contract laborers, salaried employees, or subcontractors, depending on the need. The fact of the matter is that we need jobs, we need lots of them, and we need them right now! Seven twenty five an hour won’t work either. Let’s strike and protest for action while we engage in other methods of passive resistance on this matter. We might as well, because things are going to continue to get worse until we do.

 

The next sub-category of worker’s rights is the right to free vocational retraining for life. Period, end of story. Anybody can go back to school and get retrained at will, up to and including a 2 year degree (with a 4-year available for some additional cost) at little or no cost. Large, wealthy corporations with robust cash flows, as well as millionaires and the super-rich, will supply the necessary funding through what I call in my book “the excess wealth tax” (you can buy the book on Amazon from right here). Since corporate America made the decision to send their factories and all the jobs those factories provided overseas to lower their labor costs, and since this action has caused the obliteration of millions of American careers, it will be corporate America who will shoulder the expense of retraining these people whose careers evaporated through no fault of their own. If they take your job away, or if they export or downsize your career out of existence like I experienced myself, then it is those same corporate henchmen who must pay for your reeducation. Higher public education is a basic, fundamental human right. It is not a privilege! As of today, higher education, and the fundamental right to improve and enrich ourselves, is an essential human right that must be had by all without qualification!

 

Now I know what at least some of you are thinking right now – “who’s gonna pay for all this?” That is a perfectly valid question. Let me put all this into perspective for you. If your US government took all the money that was spent in a single day on the twin occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the clandestine and illegal wars and “black ops” in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere and set it aside in an enormous savings account, there would be enough money to send every American school age kid from the first grade through high school and upwards to any public college, state university, or vocational or technical school to earn their degree of choice with the tuition fully paid for, plus the cost of all their books and supplies, their meals during school hours, Internet access, new computers, and with access to public transportation covered for those who need it.

So, for those who say we can’t afford to send everyone to public or community colleges with most if not all of their expenses fully paid, or that the money to accomplish this just isn’t there, either doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or they are elitists and bigots who can’t stand to see middle and working class and minority students getting ahead. Access to higher education – and looking after the children of those who are retraining – is an American civil right that should be equally available to all without qualification, not just to those who can afford the ‘tuition’. Would you like to see test scores improve in our nation’s schools? Tell all those kids that they are all going to public college at taxpayer expense, and watch their grades shoot up like rockets at Cape Canaveral. Give them an incentive to do better and our kids will rise to the challenge every time!

 

The right to family and sick leave, which must include maternity leave for women, is the final right I have listed for all workers and independent contractors. Every other country in the developed world from Europe to Canada to Japan has paid family and sick leave for its workers – all except for the US. It’s way past time for Congress and President Trump to bring our country up to speed with the rest of the world. Moreover, medical, family and maternity leave should be allowed for up to 3 months per calendar year, and it must be made illegal to fire someone from his or her job because that employee needed to take family or sick leave. The right of all individuals to have medical, family or maternity leave must be had by all, without interference or fear of retribution, for the strengthening of our families and the nurturing of our children. The fundamental rights of workers must be honored and acknowledged by rule of law, and by a culture change that puts people before profits, which goes hand in hand with Progressive Christianity. As the old ways of greed-based capitalism continue to die of old age, this is the new reality we must all embrace if we are to thrive in the 21st century.

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Gun Control Is Good, But Self Control Is Even Better

Empathy and Compassion in 21st Century America

 

In a memorial service held last month in Tucson, Arizona for the victims of the 2012 mass shooting that took place there, President Obama called on Americans to “sharpen our instincts for empathy” so that we can become a more civil people. The President’s call for a more empathic culture and civil society raises these troubling questions: What has gone so terribly wrong with America? Why are we becoming more aggressive, violent, self-interested and intolerant as a society? The problem goes far deeper than just blaming the escalating rhetoric of political pundits and talk show hosts, or of vilifying the so-called “gun culture”. Like it or not, we are a country governed by the rule of law, and the Second Amendment is part of that law, which is the Constitution of the United States. Instead, it has been my observation that they are playing off a deeper sensibility – or fear – that has become engrained in the thinking of many Americans.

 

 

It is our core beliefs about the very nature of human beings that make us so susceptible to the rising plague of hate and mistrust, even to the point of paranoia, and of the intolerance and unfocused rage that is spreading across the land. The current manhunt in California for an apparently berserk ex-cop is only the latest example. The American character was forged, in large part, on a skewed idea about who we are as a people that was spawned hundreds of years ago in the Protestant Reformation. From the very moment John Winthrop and his flock of Puritans landed on American shores in 1630, we came to believe that we are God’s chosen people, when in fact the Bible states clearly and repeatedly that it is the nation of Israel that is God’s chosen people. For Scripture that backs this up irrefutably, please see Deuteronomy chapter 34, verses 1-4 (“Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land – from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negev and the whole region from the valley of Jericho, the city of palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I will give it to your descendants’”, and Joshua chapter one, verses 2-5 (“Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them – to the Israelites. I will give you every place that you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert in Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates – all the Hittite country – to the Great Sea on the west. No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.”) For the most detailed explanation found in the Bible, see Joshua chapters 13-20, which is the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict that simmers to this day.

 

 

The ideology that God has a unique covenant with America that makes us special among the peoples of the world is a load of bull. We have become the fiercest supporters of the erroneous belief that the naked pursuit of individual self-interest in the market – the pursuit of profit based on greed – is the defining feature of human nature. We have by extension become believers in “American Exceptionalism,” that our political ideology and our capitalist economic system are somehow superior to all others. This political hubris was the basis for the Cold War of the late 1940’s to the late 1980’s. In our social life, we are the strongest supporters of Social Darwinism, that life is a combative struggle in which only the strongest survive. These highly regarded core “beliefs” are antithetical to a mature empathic sensibility, an antidote to compassion, and they are mean-spirited and selfish to say the least.

 

 

It’s no wonder, then, that when President Obama spoke of empathy during his first year in office, and again at the memorial service in Tucson, mentioning that it is the guiding philosophical principle in his life, he was pummeled and excoriated in the main-stream press as being weak and unfit to be the “Commander-in-Chief” of the most powerful nation on Earth. The question that is bothering me here is: What is there about the interrelated concepts of empathy and compassion that conjures up so much derision? Why does this seem to frighten so many people? Perhaps it’s because being empathic and/or compassionate requires giving up the pretense of being special and anointed, as being “God’s chosen people”, which is tantamount to being usurpers of God’s holy covenant as stated in the above passages of Scripture. It means being mindful of other points of view, which requires the maintenance of an open mind, not to mention tolerance of those who are different from ourselves. It also means abandoning the idea that narcissistic self-interest is the only thing that matters. And, most important, it means being sympathetic to the plight of others and being sensitive to their needs. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren, that you do for me”.

 

 

New discoveries in human evolutionary development that encompass mankind’s anthropology as well as advances in psychiatry and psychology are challenging our long held shibboleths about human nature. We are learning that human beings are biologically predisposed – not for aggression, violence, self-interest and pleasure-seeking utilitarian behavior – but rather for intimacy and sociability, and that empathy and compassion are the emotional and cognitive means by which we express these drives. To empathize is to experience the condition of others as if it was our own. It is to recognize their vulnerabilities and their struggle to flourish and to become something more than what they are. To express compassion with others requires that we first acknowledge our own vulnerabilities and to confront our own feelings of insecurity. It is because we realize that life is fraught with challenges, that we are all imperfect, fragile and vulnerable, that life is precious and worthy of being treated with respect, that we are then able to reach out and, through our empathic regard, express our solidarity with our fellow beings. Empathy is how we celebrate each other’s existence. To empathize is to civilize, and to have and practice compassion is what sums up the two greatest commandments of Christ (“Love the Lord your God with all your strength, with all your might, with all your heart and with all your spirit. And the second command is like the first: Love your neighbor as yourself”).

 

 

Empathy is the real “invisible hand” of history. It is the social glue that has allowed our species to express solidarity with each other over ever broader domains. The advent of the internet in the last 20 years, and more recently social media, has increased this phenomenon exponentially. Empathy has evolved over history. In forager-hunter societies, empathy rarely went beyond tribal blood ties. In the great agricultural age, empathy extended past blood ties to associational ties based on religious or racial identification. Jews began to empathize with fellow Jews as if in an extended family, Christians began empathizing with fellow Christians, Muslims with Muslims, and so on. In the Industrial Age, with the emergence of the modern nation-state, empathy extended once again, this time to people of like-minded national identities. Americans began to empathize with Americans, Germans with Germans, Japanese with Japanese. Today empathy is beginning to stretch beyond national boundaries to include the whole of humanity. We are coming to see the biosphere as our indivisible community, and our fellow human beings and creatures as our extended evolutionary family.

 

 

This doesn’t mean that our national loyalties, religious beliefs and blood affiliations are not important to us any more. But when they become a litmus test for defining the human sojourn, all other beliefs become the “alien other”. For a long time, we Americans have been obsessed with “creating a more perfect union.” Maybe it is time to put equal or greater weight on creating a more empathic and compassionate society. The hard economic times that have been ongoing since the economic implosion of 2008 up to the present serve to add even more emphasis to this timeless truth. We have the stark choice of either upholding each other for the mutual benefit of all, or facing mutually assured self-destruction. It’s all up to us.

 

 

 

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