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The importance of Jackie Robinson

In the history of the modern American civil rights movement, three iconic moments are typically cited:
 
• May 17, 1954: The U.S. Supreme Court hands down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring segregated — “separate but equal” — public schools unconstitutional.
 
• Aug. 28, 1963: Two hundred thousand Americans participate in the March on Washington and hear Martin Luther King Jr. proclaim his dream of a country in which his children will be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; 10 months later, Congress enacts the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
 
• March 3, 1965: Civil rights marchers are assaulted by police tear gas and Billy clubs on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala.; five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs into law the Voting Rights Act, vindicating the Selma marchers’ cause.
 
These were noble moments, worth remembering; I certainly cherish my memories of encounters with Bayard Rustin, who organized the march that made Dr. King a national eminence.
 
But I believe there was a fourth iconic moment in America’s journey from a land fouled by segregation to the most racially egalitarian nation on the planet. The man at the center of that fourth dramatic moment was an American legend whose accomplishments should rank as high as anyone’s in the pantheon of civil rights heroes.
 
On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers opened their National League season against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. The Dodger first baseman that day was Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in a major league game since the infamous “color line” was drawn in the 1880s.
 
At UCLA in 1939-41, Robinson was perhaps the greatest amateur athlete in the country, a star in track and field, football and basketball.
 
After service as an Army officer in World War II, he was playing shortstop for the
Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League when he was signed to a minor
league contract by Branch Rickey, a cigar-chomping Methodist and the Dodgers’ general manager.
 
Rickey was determined to break the color line, and he deliberately chose Jack Roosevelt Robinson to do so.
 
And not because Jackie Robinson was a mild-mannered wallflower. Robinson was to be a warrior with a difference, however: Rickey, an adept psychologist who believed in the essential fairness of the American people, wanted a man with the courage not to fight back against the racist slurs, beanballs and spikings that were sure to come his way — except by giving an unforgettable performance on the field.
 
Which is what Jackie Robinson, the immortal Number 42, delivered.
 
Grainy black-and-white videos today remind us of a truth the baseball world learned 70 years ago: There has never been anything more exciting in baseball, including the majestic home run and the overpowering no-hitter, than 42 stealing a base, especially home. Rather than hollering back at bigots during his rookie year, Robinson beat them with games that helped lift the Dodgers to the National League pennant and brought them within one game of a World Series victory over the
Yankees (who didn’t sign an African-American player until Elston Howard in 1955).
 
It was a performance for the ages. And it changed America.
 
In this entertainment-saturated 21st century, it may be hard to recall the grip baseball had on the national emotions and imagination in 1947. But as the late
Columbia University cultural historian Jacques Barzun used to say, whoever wants to understand the heart and mind of America had better understand baseball.
 
On April 14, 1947, that nation-defining pastime still embodied the nation’s original sin. The next day, Jackie Robinson began to accelerate a change in America’s heart and mind. That change made possible Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights
Act and the Voting Rights Act.
 
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the GW Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
 
This article has been published in the summer 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.

 

Theology isn't math

During the heyday of the Solidarity movement, a famous Polish slogan had it that, “For Poland to be Poland, 2 + 2 Must Always = 4.” It was a quirky but pointed way of challenging the communist culture of the lie, which befogged public life and warped relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, colleagues and neighbors. For Poland to be something other than the claustrophobic Soviet puppet-state it had been since 1945 – for Poland to be itself, true to its character and history – Poland had to live in the truth: It had to be a country in which 2 + 2 always equaled 4.
           
That Solidarity slogan harkened back to George Orwell’s “1984.” In Orwell’s dystopian novel, a totalitarian state maintains social control by obfuscating reality, using what the British author called “Newspeak” and “doublethink” to compel its subjects to acknowledge as true what they know is false. Thus one of the more odious of the characters in the novel, a regime stooge whose job is to break the will of “thought criminals,” explains that if Big Brother and the omnipotent Party say so, two plus two doesn’t necessarily equal four: “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once.”
           
Which brings us to a tweet earlier this month from Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a prominent figure on the current Roman scene.
            
I don’t use Twitter, so its syntactical wonderland is a bit foreign to me. And having had previous experience of Father Spadaro’s capacity for provocation-via-Twitter, I’m prepared to think that, in this case, he may have been trying to say something other than what he seemed to be saying. But as his tweet rang ominous bells for anyone familiar with Orwell or Solidarity, it’s worth reflecting upon.
           
Here’s what Father Spadaro tweeted (in linear, rather than Twitter, format): “Theology is not Mathematics. 2 + 2 in Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with God and real life of people.”
           
Now that was not, so to speak, a tweet in a vacuum. It was a message projected into an already-overheated Catholic conversation about the proper interpretation of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In that context, the charitable reading of the tweet is that Father Spadaro was reminding us of the obvious – that pastoral care is an art, and that the priest dealing with complicated and messy human situations is not like a first-grade teacher drilling six-year olds in addition.
 
But then the question inevitably arises, what is the relationship of truth to pastoral care? And why suggest, even in Twitter-world, that there are multiple “truths” – a convention of the post-modern academic playpen that leads by a short road to the chaos of “your truth” and “my truth” and nothing properly describable as the truth?
As for theology, the word means speaking-of-God, which in Christian terms speaking of the One who is Truth – the Truth who makes us free in the deepest meaning of human liberation. There are many ways of doing theology, and not all of them are strictly syllogistic; St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, doctors of the Church, were not logicians. But if theology decays into illogical forms of Newspeak, it is false to itself.
           
It was providential that Christianity had its first “inculturation” in a milieu – Greco-Roman antiquity – where the principle of non-contradiction was well-established and something couldn’t “be” and “not be” simultaneously. That cultural environment was where Christianity found the conceptual tools to turn confession and proclamation – “Jesus is Lord” – into catechesis and creed. Suppose the first “inculturation” had been in a setting where it made perfect sense to say “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is not Lord” at the same time – like the culture of India two millennia ago? It made a great deal of difference that the first formative centuries of Christianity took place in a culture where 2 + 2 always equaled 4.
           
Applying the truths of the faith to the complexities of life is not a matter of logic alone. But if attempts to do so are illogical, in that they stretch truth to the breaking point, they’re unlikely to be pastorally effective. Because the soul needs truth to be free.       
 
 

A reflection on “A Man for All Seasons”

On Dec. 12, 1966, the film “A Man for All Seasons” was released. And if it’s impossible to imagine such a picture on such a theme winning Oscars today, then let’s be grateful that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got it right by giving Fred Zinnemann’s splendid movie six of its awards in 1967 – when, reputedly, Audrey Hepburn lifted her eyes to heaven before announcing with obvious pleasure that this cinematic celebration of the witness and martyrdom of Sir Thomas More had beaten “The Sand Pebbles,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Alfie” and T”he Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” for Best Picture.
           
Intriguingly, though, “A Man for All Seasons” is a magnificent religious film – perhaps the best ever – despite its author’s stated intentions.
           
Robert Bolt’s introduction to his play, which led to the movie, makes it rather clear that author Bolt saw More less as a Catholic martyr than as an existential hero, an approach befitting the hot philosophical movement of the day (which was, of course, the Sixties). As Bolt put it:
           
“Thomas More…became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what areas of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases, for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover. Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at last he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self.  And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff….
           
“What attracted me was a person who could not be accused of any incapacity for life, who indeed seized life in great variety and almost greedy quantities, who nevertheless found something in himself without which life was valueless and when that was denied him was able to grasp his death.”
           
Yet this portrait of Thomas-More-as-Tudor-era-existentialist doesn’t quite convince, because Bolt, perhaps in spite of himself, gave us a different More in his drama and later in his screenplay – a More who “grasps” his death, not as an existential stalwart, a courageously autonomous “Self,” but as a Catholic willing to die for the truth, which has grasped him as the love of God in Christ.  Thus when More’s intellectually gifted daughter Margaret, having failed to argue him out of his refusal to countenance Henry VIII’s divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, plays her final card and cries, “But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?”, More replies, haltingly, “Well…finally…it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
           
And not love of self, but love of God and love of the truth. For the God who is truth all the way through is also, St. John the Evangelist teaches us, love itself. And to be transformed by that love is to live in the truth – the truth that sets us free in the deepest and noblest meaning of human liberation.
           
There was something worthy and inspiring about certain aspects of existentialism: not the soured existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which quickly decomposed into nihilism, but the heroic existentialism of a Albert Camus, who could not abide the anti-clerical Catholic progressives of his day and who sought a world in which we could be, as he put it, “neither victims nor executioners.” But it was Sartrean existentialism that won the day, at least insofar as one can trace a line from Sartre to contemporary narcissism, displayed today in everything from temper tantrums on university campuses by over-privileged and under-educated barbarians to voters across the Western world who seek relief from their grievances – some quite legitimate – in adherence to some pretty dreadful characters.
           
In this unhappy situation, we need the real Thomas More: the Thomas More who bore witness and ultimately “grasped his death,” not to vindicate his sense of self, but as the final and ultimate act of thanks for his having been grasped, and saved, by Truth itself, the Thrice-Holy God.   
 

A cinematic lesson in hope

At a moment like this when there doesn’t seem to be a lot going right — ascendant authoritarianisms throughout the world; lethal violence by ideological fanatics; feckless responses to both from the democracies — it’s good to be reminded that things can be different, and in fact were different, not so very long ago. 

Recapturing those days and summoning memories of a time when the good folks won, cleanly and against all the odds, is the singular accomplishment of a splendid new documentary, “Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism,” which should be on everyone’s summer must-watch list.

It took me 19 years of research and three books (“The Final Revolution,” “Witness to Hope,” and “The End and the Beginning”) to do what executive producer Carl Anderson and writer/director David Naglieri have done in 93 minutes of gripping videography and marvelous graphics: explain how and why John Paul played a pivotal, indeed indispensable, role in the greatest drama of the last quarter of the 20 century: the collapse of European communism. In doing so, they make us think hard, again, about how this miraculous liberation took place: something no one expected on October 16, 1978, when a little-known Polish cardinal, who styled himself the pope “from a far country,” was presented on the central loggia of St. Peter’s as the new bishop of Rome.       

Central and eastern Europe weren’t liberated by conceding that the communists had a point, even if they were rather brutal and inefficient in making that point socially, economically, and politically. Nor were the countries of the Warsaw Pact liberated by churchmen and western diplomats cosseting the dictators that ran those party-states. What we used to call the “captive nations” were liberated because “good” and “evil” were “called by their right names,” as the Solidarity martyr, Blessed Jerzy Popieliuszko, used to put it.

Central and eastern Europe didn’t break free of the shackles of totalitarianism without trying, failing, and then trying again: it took a critical mass of people, determined to “live in the truth” no matter how difficult, to implode the communist culture of the lie and give a new birth of freedom to the lands Stalin claimed as his prize for helping beat Hitler.

And the countries of central and eastern Europe didn’t regain their liberties by adopting the usual 20th-century method of social change, mass violence. Understanding that people who begin by storming Bastilles usually end up building their own (as one Polish dissident said), the new freedom fighters inspired by John Paul II deployed weapons that communist brutality could not match: truth, national memory, tenacious organizing, and personal resilience. 

For those whose memories of St. John Paul reach back only as far as his last years, “Liberating a Continent” is also a powerful reminder of what a handsome, charismatic, and utterly compelling man John Paul II was at the height of his physical powers. He radiated confidence, moral strength, and the courage of a happy warrior. And because of that, those whose lives he touched felt empowered in return. 

The displacement of history by “social studies” in U.S. elementary and secondary schools has been a disaster for historical understanding. And while the new “social history,” which wants to do history from the bottom up, has taught us many things, there are still occasions when great men do bend history’s curve in a different direction; “Liberating a Continent” is also a useful reminder that John Paul II didn’t make “1989” happen by himself. But without him, a continent wouldn’t have been liberated when it was and how it was. So I’d suggest adding this terrific film to the curriculum of every Catholic (and indeed every Christian) high school in North America, to remind students what happened in their parents’ lifetimes and to inspire them to moral greatness themselves.

“Liberating a Continent” will be aired on various public television stations in the months ahead; that schedule will be regularly updated at www.jp2film.com. But while you’re checking for local airings at that site, go to the “purchase” tab, order a copy online, and settle down for an hour and a half of superb entertainment that will lift your spirits in a darkling season.  

Article written by George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
 

Synod-2015 Revisited

As I write, just before Thanksgiving, it's been over a month since Synod-2015 finished its work. Yet there is still no official translation of the Synod's Final Report into the major world languages from the original Italian (a language regularly used by 8/10 of one per cent of the world's population). That's a shame because, in the main, the "Relatio Finalis" is an impressive, often-moving statement of the Church's convictions about chastity, marriage, and the family: biblically rich, theologically serious, pastorally sensitive, and well-crafted to meet the challenge of the cultural tsunami responsible for the contemporary crisis of marriage and the family, which has left a lot of unhappiness in its wake.

It's also a shame because the unavailability of the Final Report in the weeks after the Synod has led to all sorts of spinning about its contents, and thus to no small amount of confusion, even consternation.

So while it's impossible to do full justice to the "Relatio Finalis" in a single column, let me address some of those confusions through eight bullet-points, based on the original Italian text and informed by my experience of the discussions throughout Synod-2015:

1 The Final Report reaffirms the classic teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage and the conditions for worthiness to receive holy Communion, both of which are based on divine revelation and are thus not subject to change.

2 The Final Report does not endorse what has become known as the Kasper Proposal, i.e., the readmission to eucharistic communion, after a penitential period, of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics whose prior marriage has not been granted a decree of nullity by an ecclesial court.

3 In reaffirming these classics of Catholic faith and practice, the "Relatio Finalis" affirms that there can be no wedge driven here between "doctrine" and "pastoral practice," for the traditional discipline of the Church is based on the conviction that what is at stake is the integrity of individuals before the Lord: in other words, worthiness to receive holy Communion is a matter of living in the truth.

4 In its now widely-controverted paragraph 85, the Final Report emphasizes that "pastoral accompaniment" of the divorced and civilly remarried by a priest in the "internal forum" must always be undertaken "according to the teaching of the Church." Those seven words were inserted in the "Relato Finalis" in the last 24 hours of the Synod and provide the necessary anchor for any truly pastoral accompaniment in the case of the divorced and civilly remarried (or indeed in any other case). For in pastoral life, as in the gospels, truth and mercy work together.

5 The Final Report urges the Church's pastors to provide whatever canonical/legal help they can in resolving difficult and painful situations of marital breakdown. It also underscores the importance of effective marriage-preparation programs, which are urgently needed in situations where the ambient public culture's understanding of "marriage" and the Church's understanding of "marriage" are often dramatically different. Which is to say, marriage preparation should be seen as an integral part of the New Evangelization, and an important ecclesial mission of mercy among the walking wounded who are sifting through what Pope Francis has described as the post-battlefield wreckage of contemporary culture.

6 The Final Report, like Cardinal Péter Erdő's opening address to the Synod as its Rapporteur- General, makes clear that there is no analogy at all between the Church's understanding of marriage and other living arrangements among consenting adults.

7 The "Relatio Finalis" (unlike the Synod's working document) celebrates children as a great blessing, praises large families, and urges support for families with special-needs kids.

8 In all of this, the Final Report emphasizes that the Church reads the "signs of the times" through the lens of divine revelation (in this case, the unambiguous teaching of the Lord Jesus and St. Paul). The "signs of the times" do not judge the deposit of faith, although the most challenging of those "signs" can highlight the Church's failures in teaching and witnessing to the truth.

For more, see my article, "What Really Happened at Synod 2015," available at www.firstthings.com.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

 

Confessions of an 'elitist'

The term "elitist" has been bandied about so promiscuously in this election cycle that it's become virtually content-free. Yet "elitist" is also being weaponized as a scare-word to prevent legitimate criticism of ideas, attitudes, and behaviors once thought beyond the pale, even in the rough-and-tumble of politics (which, as Mr. Dooley reminds us, "ain't beanbag"). That kind of bullying is bad news for an already degraded political culture.

So let me offer these "Confessions of an Elitist" in the hope that they might encourage others to push back against the "anti-elitist" thought police – and in so doing, to help rescue American public life from terminal moral trivialization.

I believe that intelligence is superior to emotion, and reason better than anger in making political arguments and choices: in political debate as in curry, heat doesn't necessarily make things better.

I believe that the systematic rhetorical degradation of political opponents betrays a coarseness of mind and spirit corrosive of the norms of civility essential to democratic politics.

I believe that there are some things worth losing for, and that losing in defense of them doesn't make anyone a "loser."

I believe that the reduction of political argument to 140-character tweets is ruinous to democracy.

I believe that incitements to political violence are despicable, no matter what their source, alleged purpose, or putative justification.

I believe that a sense of honor is essential in a political leader and includes commitments to telling the truth (no matter how discomforting) and to doing one's duty (irrespective of political risk). I believe that a knowledge of history and an openness to learn from it are essential qualities in any public official who proposes to bend the curve of history in a more humane and just direction. I believe that politicians who ignore the danger of unintended consequences inevitably make matters worse rather than better.

I believe that, in politics, prudence is the greatest of the cardinal virtues, closely followed by courage (which prevents prudence from decomposing into expedience).

I believe that a legislator or president owes constituents his or her best judgment, and that the legislator or president who imagines himself or herself a mere channel of constituent passions is going to do a lot of damage to the common good. I believe that politicians who refuse to acknowledge their errors of judgment in the face of massive empirical evidence that they got it wrong display a narcissism that is inherently dangerous.

I believe that former public officials who accept obscenely large honoraria for (usually vacuous) speeches are reprehensible; that the people who pay those fees are either star-struck fools impressed with celebrity or inveiglers soliciting future access; and that both the payer and the payee in these tawdry transactions contribute to the further debasement of our politics into a sub-set of "entertainment."

I believe that any morally serious notion of "national interest" includes a concept of national purpose, informed by the classic ends of politics: freedom, justice, security, the common good, and the peace of public order.

I believe that a mass media facilitating a serious debate over complex issues, rather than playing "gotcha" games, would fulfill its ambition to be the fourth estate and be applauded by serious citizens.

I believe that political parties exist to achieve certain political purposes; that no party has a claim to exist in perpetuity; and that when parties abandon the noble ideas and purposes to which they once subscribed, party loyalty has no further claims to make on a thoughtful citizen.

I believe that tribalism – be that the ethnic tribe, the racial tribe, or the gender tribe – is inimical to democratic pluralism.

I believe that kowtowing to political correctness and indulging in identity politics are signs of low intelligence, cowardice, or both.

I believe that a "value-neutral" democracy is a contradiction in terms and that the attempt to create such a chimera in the name of false ideas of "fairness" and "tolerance" inevitably results in coercive state power being deployed to impose relativism on an entire society.

I hope you believe these things, too. If you do, welcome to the ranks of elitists. Wear the label with pride, and help rescue our political culture from the vulgarians.

Biblical preaching and healing the culture

If Catholics in the United States are going to be healers of our wounded culture, we're going to have to learn to see the world through lenses ground by biblical faith. That form of depth perception only comes from an immersion in the Bible itself. So spending 10 or 15 minutes a day with the word of God is a must for the evangelical Catholic of the 21st century.

Biblical preaching that breaks open the text so that we can see the world, and ourselves, aright is another 21st-century Catholic imperative.

There is far too little biblically based catechetical preaching, at which the Fathers of the Church in the first millennium excelled, today. The Church still learns from their ancient homilies in the Liturgy of the Hours, but the kind of expository preaching the Fathers did is rarely heard at either Sunday or weekday Masses. It must be, though, if the Church's people are to be equipped to convert and heal contemporary culture. For the first step in that healing process is to penetrate the fog, see ourselves for who we are, and understand our situation for what it is.

How might biblical preaching help us do that?

Take the recent Solemnity of the Ascension as an example. The essential truth of the Ascension is that it marked the moment in salvation history at which humanity–glorified humanity, to be sure, but humanity nonetheless–was incorporated into the thrice-holy God. The God of the Bible is God-withus, Emmanuel. But, with the Ascension and Christ's glorification "at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Heb 1:3), humanity is "with God." If the Incarnation, Christ's coming in the flesh, teaches us that God is not distant from us, and if the Passion teaches us that God is "with us" even in suffering and death, then the Ascension teaches us that one like us is now "with God," and indeed in God. Which means that humanity is capable of being sanctified, even divinized.

Eastern Christian theology calls this theosis, "divinization," and it's a hard concept for many western Christians to grasp. Yet here is what St. Basil the Great, one of the Cappadocian Fathers of the Church, teaches about the sending of the Holy Spirit, promised in Acts 1:8 at the Ascension: "Through the Spirit we acquire a likeness to God; indeed we attain what is beyond our most sublime aspirations–we become God." What can that possibly mean?

It means that, through the gift of salvation, we are being sanctified: we are being drawn into the very life of God, who is the source of all holiness. And it means that our final destiny is not oblivion, but communion within the light and love of the Trinity. Why? Because the glorified Christ, present in his transfigured humanity to the first disciples in the Upper Room, on the Emmaus Road, and by the Sea of Galilee, has gone before us and is now "within" the Godhead, where he wishes his own to be, too.

Wonderful, you say. But what does that have to do with healing 21st-century culture?

Everything.

At the root of today's culture of happy-go-lucky hedonism, which inevitably leads to debonair nihilism, is a profound deprecation of the human: a colossal put-down that tells us that we're just congealed star dust, a cosmic accident–so why not enjoy what you can, as soon as you can, however you like, before oblivion? Why take your humanity seriously–including that part of your humanity by which you are constituted as male or female? You can change whatever you like; it's all plastic and it's all meaningless, because the only meaning of our humanity is the meaning we choose for it.

Christian faith offers a far nobler vision of the human condition than this dumbed-down self-absorption. Where do we find that nobler humanity exemplified? In the Ascension, and the incorporation of Christ's human nature into the mutual love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And where the Master has gone, the disciples are empowered by grace to follow.

That's what should have been preached on the Solemnity of the Ascension. That's the kind of preaching we need, day after day and Sunday after Sunday.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Things that can't change

When the Second Vatican Council was putting the finishing touches on one of its key documents, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), Pope Paul VI proposed that it include a statement that the pope is "accountable to the Lord alone."

The suggestion was referred to the Council's Theological Commission, which, perhaps to Pope Paul's surprise, flatly rejected it: the Roman Pontiff, the Theological Commission noted, "is . . . bound to revelation itself, to the fundamental structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the definitions of earlier Councils, and other obligations too numerous to mention." The pope cannot, in other words, change the deposit of faith, of which he is the custodian, not the master. The pope can't decide that the Church can do without bishops, or that there really are eleven sacraments, or that Arius had it right in denying the divinity of Christ.

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