And he could do no deed of power there ... (Mk 6,5)
|Publiziert in:||Paper presented at the COV&R Conference 2006 on "Mimesis, Creativity, and Responsibility" in Ottawa on June 1, 2006|
Healing of the sick was essential to the work of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew, the evangelist, puts this in a summary:
»Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.« (Mt 4,23–24)
The healing miracles, worked by Jesus, underline his message of the kingdom of God, a message which the Gospel according to Mark summarizes as follows:
»The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.« (Mk 1,15)
What does this mean: kingdom of God? It may be defined as a stabilized situation of humans and of human society, where God̓s saving will is completely carried through. In this sense the Lord̓s Prayer contains the request: „Your kingdom come. Your will be done.“ (Mt 6,9–10). The result is an unhurt status, that refers to personal, social, and creational dimensions of humanity, made up by a genuine relation to God. Jews provide the term schalom for it, and Christians call it salvation.
Correspondingly the healing work of Jesus is based on his deep relation to his divine father. Jesus practises healing by being, not primarily by doing or speaking. That̓s typical for the way he heals: nearly without specific doing, only with a few words. His healing practice is based on the charisma of Jesus‘ relational being, which springs over like a spark to his suffering addressees. As a result, a new admission to the authentic, incomprehensible and not manipulable God opens up for them. To grasp this chance means faith. This faith brings about a new way of living, which may contain physical or mental healing.
Most biblical healing stories show, that faith is a precondition for healing. Repeatedly Jesus states: „Your faith has maid you well.“ (Mk 5,34). Jesus ascribes a great power to faith, for example when he says that faith can move mountains (cf Mk 11,23). But this means on the other hand, that full faith is as seldom as the effect, Jesus attributes to it. Faith means to believe in God, and this will remain inadequate as long as one has a wrong idea of God. Normally we picture God in an inadaquate way. Jesus opens up an authentic experience of God as he really is, and so he empowers persons to a strong belief. Due to this empowerment, persons are engaged to change their way of living and their ideas. They have to change their live, because they are enabled to. This is meant by the word repentance, used in the biblical summary: „The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.“ Faith and repentance are conditions for healing, just as unbelief is often bound up with sickness.
Unbelief is not only the missing of a positive relation to God, moreover it is an active attitude to persons and things which obscures the view of the self-disclosing God. In this way unbelief turns out to be an attitude which violates the second commandment.
»You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.« (Ex 20,4)
It is easily overlooked, that this commandment also prohibits to mold idols of created being. In fact we are permanently tempted to confine persons, things and occurences to constricting pictures, that are generated by rash judgments. We tie others or even ourselves down to certain limitations. Physical malfunction serves as a seductive trigger for such confining definitions. A rough example: „This is just a cripple“. – Systemic therapy shows, that people may virtually flee into a disease or failure, just to gain a definition for themselves: „I am nothing but a loser“ – „But so at least I am no more nothing.“ Jesus works healing by means of an authoritative re-definiton, which in fact is a reversal of negative definitions. Confining definitions are cancelled, and the inexhaustible mystery of human person as an image of God opens up again.
We cannot gain immediate access to God, but only via creational – and especially human – mediation. The idolizing confinement of God to a down-pinning image is generally effected by pinning down persons to limited and limiting pictures. When such down-pinning is a crucial form of sinning, it becomes evident that healing has much to do with forgiving of sins and with repentance. Correspondingly for Jesus healing and forgiving of sins are closely tied together.
Ill-making definitions are socially embedded. Limiting definitions hold a social function. To define a person as ill, as mad, or as evil is suited to stabilize a community. This is a key-idea for systemic therapy which starts by altering ill-making interpersonal connections (e.g. double-binds). And this insight is essential for René Girards concept of the scapegoat-mechanism, which illuminates the connection between an excluding definition of human beings and a definition of God, that results in the picture of a false transcendence. Due to this social dimension of defining, the healing-practice of Jesus, which is achieved by authoritative re-definition, has necessarily strong effects on communities, that are involved in ill-making, defining processes. (1) With his healing miracles Jesus intended not only the salvation of individual persons but at the same time he aimed at transforming communities.
In order to develop the social dimensions of the work of Jesus, I will refer to a programmatic text of the evangelist Luke. It is the story of the rejection of Jesus in his hometown Nazareth:
»When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: „The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord̓s favor.“ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, „Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.“ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, „Is not this Joseph‘s son?“ He said to them, „Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‚Doctor, cure yourself!‘ And you will say, ‚Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.‘“ And he said, „Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet‘s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.“ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.«
This Lukan text serves a similar function as the summaries by Matthew and Mark, which I quoted above. It is located at the beginning of the public life of Jesus and summarizes its specific characteristics. But as distinct from these the Lukan text does this by telling a story. Luke outlines a dramatic interplay between the proclamation of Jesus and changing reactions of the people. The story contains several surprising turns: firstly a sudden change in the reaction of the Nazarene congregation from enthusiastic agreement to sceptical refusal; secondly an unexpected negative and provoking response by Jesus; thirdly a seemingly totally disproportionate reaction by the Nazarenes: They chase them out of their town and try to kill him.
When we investigate this text regarding to the topic of healing, a further surprise comes up: Though the topic of healing is constantly present, nevertheless healing does not take place. Let̓s summon up the elements, where the topic of healing occurs:
1. Jesus choses an Old testament text, a prophecy about healing and salvation;
2. Jesus proclaims that this prophecy has already been fulfilled here and now, obviously by himself.
3. Jesus insinuates the expectation of the audience, that he should heal: „Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‚Doctor, cure yourself!‘ And you will say, ‚Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.‘“
4. This quotation refers to a prelude of this Nazarene story: Immediately before, Jesus had worked healing miracles in Capernaum.
5. Jesus speaks about the healing of Gentiles by the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha. (2)
6. Finally a sequel: After his stay in his home-village Jesus will go back to Capernaum, where he will do the same as in Nazareth: he will teach in the synagogue and heal a lot of people. „As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.“ (Lk 4,40)
Why did Jesus not heal in Nazareth? What went wrong there? Yet the story did not start badly: „All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words“, but few moments later Jesus speaks in a very provocative way. What made the situation change so totally? Let us remember the crucial scene:
»And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, „Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.“ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, „Is not this Joseph‘s son?“«
Imagine the situation: Something incredible has just happened. A great prophecy, already centuries old and never other applied than to an uncertain future, has been announced as fulfilled here and now. This must seem unbelievable. On the other hand the credibility of Jesus has been proofed highly by his healing-practice in Capernaum. And Jesus must have had this enormous charisma, we have already mentioned, because at the beginning people were really carried away. „All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.“ But the very next sentence does no not augur well. „Is not this Joseph̓s son?“. The parallel text from Mark shows this more explicitly:
»Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?“ And they took offense at him.« (Mk 6,3)
The immediate change is only explainable when we refer to collective dynamics. In a certain way they are indicated by the sentence: „The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.“ – As the story assures us, the immediate reaction of every subject looking to Jesus was approving. But nobody stands hear alone, the look upon Jesus is accompanied by a hidden sidelong glance, indicating the silent question: What will the others think when I give my approval to this guy, who has grown up together with us? We can imagine, that the ordinary people will hesitate showing a reaction, until the „experts“ go ahead. But the experts – pharisees, scribes, the chairman of the synagogue – are overtaxed not any less. The case is absolutely singular. In addition the experts have a reputation, which they are threatened to lose. So they hesitate too. Instead of a spontaneous and unanimous expression of belief there extends silence. Only a few seconds and the silence will last too long. Embarrassment emerges and the „show“ of Jesus proves to be a flop.
Let̓s once again call back the two opposing sentences which mark the change of the story. Add a few seconds of silence between them and take into consideration the mute mimetic play in the auditory:
»All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. – [... tense silence ...] – They said, „Is not this Joseph‘s son?“ –
I suppose, the transition will become coherent this way.
The mimetic interpretation can be backed up and deepened by analysing the Greek word for „amazed“. It̓s „thaumazein“, and that stands for a highly ambiguous attitude, which can best be translated by the word „to be fascinated“. As mimetic theory shows up, fascination marks the narrow threshold between admiration and disapproval. And this threshold is easily transgressed in the case of internal mediation, – when the other appears too similar to me. For the Nazarenes exactly this is the case with Jesus, the former fellow. So the reversal of the Nazarene̓s attitude is indicated in three steps:
»All spoke well of him [positive]
and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. [ambivalent]
They said, „Is not this Joseph‘s son?“ [negative]«
Only within a few seconds the initial flaring up of belief has died, and unbelief spreads in the synagogue of Nazareth. Unbelief in exactly the meaning, I have pointed out above: the unbelief of a down-pinning definition. Due to a mimetic interplay Jesus gets pinned down to the definition: He̓s nothing but the son of Joseph, who we all know. – The Lukan story shows the drama of a wrestle between a socially anchored unbelief – the power of accumulated definitions, which might have drawn a lot of people ill and mad – and the breaking power of the work of Jesus. For a few silent moments the wrestling is balanced on a knife edge. Then the collective force of unbelief gets the upper hand. The consequence is described in the parallel text of Mark:
»And [Jesus] could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.« Mk 6,5f
The collective power of unbelief dies the spark of the kingdom of God, which Jesus had kindled only just.
While, as I have shown above, personal healing was worked nearly effortlessly by Jesus, he had a great deal of bother to break the slow-moving resistance of collective unbelief. Notice the following passage in St Mark̓s Gospel:
»When [Jesus and his closest disciples] came to the [other] disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, „What are you arguing about with them?“ Someone from the crowd answered him, „Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.“ He answered them, „You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.“ And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, „How long has this been happening to him?“ And he said, „From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.“ Jesus said to him, „If you are able!-- All things can be done for the one who believes.“ Immediately the father of the child cried out, „I believe; help my unbelief!“ When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, „You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!“ After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, „He is dead.“ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, „Why could we not cast it out?“ He said to them, „This kind can come out only through prayer.“« (Mk 9,14–29)
This may be the strongest text of the Gospels regarding belief and unbelief in context of healing. Here unbelief proves as deeply rooted in the negative atmosphere of a sceptical crowd, which is explicitly mentioned five times. I suppose it is not accidentally at all, that in this text the disease to be cured is a possessing spirit that keeps from speaking and hearing. This blind and dumb spirit has obviously not only taken captive an individual person, but the whole community. The possession of the man is only the visual symptom of a deeper capture of the crowd, who turns out to be paralysed by a spirit that keeps from speaking and hearing, from all creativity and liveliness. That̓s the spirit of unbelief, which haunts the crowd like a creeping spell, that has already petrified the disciples, who now are entangled in fruitless debates with the scribes. And it threatens to paralyze even Jesus, so that he cries out: „You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?“ – Finally Jesus heals the demoniac, but the process runs painstakingly, hindered by the sceptical crowd, who voices nothing but distrustful comments: „... most of them said, ‚He is dead.‘“ (3)
Afterwards the disciples ask Jesus privately, why they were not able to cast out this – as we have seen, collective – demoniac. And Jesus answers: „This kind can come out only through prayer.“ Like faith, prayer here means an extremely powerful action, which accompanies the work of Jesus permanently. Again and again he withdrew from the public to pray in solitude. Praying means to tie back to the divine Father, who is the living source and centre for every created being. So prayer empowers to recognize and to revive the hidden glow of glory in the depth of the sick, a glow that is obscured by the collective power of unbelief. Or to say it with the words of St. Paul: Authentic prayer empowers to draw back the veil, which has been produced by faithless, down-pinning definitions and which covers up the divine glory, which Paul ascribes to everybody: „And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.“ (2 Kor 3,18) – I suppose, that that̓s the source where the power of healing rises, which Jesus has practised and passed on to his disciples.
As we have seen, the power of unbelief, which paralyzes healing and salvation, is a collective one. In the bible this paralyzing power is addressed as Satan, and Girard is right to interpret Satan as mimetic entanglement. (4) So the central battlefield for salvation is made up of collective dynamics, which are addressed by John as „the power of this world“ or briefly as „the world“. On an individual level Jesus succeeds comparatively effortlessly with healing and conversion. But salvation won̓t last, unless collective mechanisms are defeated. Satan has to be cast out on a social level. And this is carried through by a transformation of community.
What does transformation of community mean? The rich biblical insight in the transformation or healing of community can be condensed by the help of an idealized distinction between two types of social identity: on the one hand there exists the ideal type of a positive-related identity, rooted in a grateful relation to God and leading to a basic attitude of serving. On the other hand, there exists the ideal type of a negative-limiting identity which is made up by exclusion of outsiders and a way of down-pinning definition of members, which may be called positional thinking.
In the case of positive-related identity the source of social identity is the thankful receiving of a communal gift, that joins together and establishes a common task and responsibility which joins together again. So the common function, which builds up social identity, lies in the responsible exercising of a communal task, which is received as gift and which may serve an unlimited number of people. Positive-related identity is due to God, but as such it is also possible for communities that are not explicitly religious. That̓s because God is not directly accessible but addressed and received by a relation to created being, – a relation that always ready to find and an inexhaustible mystery deep inside of the other, even if the other behaves in a way that makes this mystery blur. And this readiness provides the basis for deep respect, love, and forgiveness. For religious people this attitude may mean, that they try to find God in the other. But this attitude is also possible to people who are not explicitly religious, as well as there exist many religious people who do not find to this high esteeming attitude towards the other, so that their religiousness misses and obscures the view of the true God.
When this positive relation to God is obscured, authentic identity is thwarted, and so persons and communities are forced to find a substitute way to safeguard identity. When identity by divine origin and vocation is lost, identity can only be made sure by delimiting characteristics in contrast to others. This holds for individual identity as well as for social or collective identity. In this case social identity is established by a type of definition like: „We are what we are, because we are different from the others“. While positive-related identity is conceived by a glance of love, orientated towards the divine mystery that mirrors in the heart of any created being, negative-limiting identity is produced by an assessing sidelong glance, by fixing outsiders and pinning them down to differences which are apt to create a distinctive image of the own community. The sidelong glance aims also to the participants of the own community: Are they yet fulfilling the conditions for belonging to the own group? Do they keep their appropriate position, or do they presume a position that̓s not for them? Do they respect my own position? And the sidelong glance reflects back to oneself: Do I come up to the demands of the others? Am I in danger to disgrace myself? This is, what I call positional thinking. It is based on a sidelong-glance, which does not primarily focus on outcasts, but on the neighbours. But though it is not automatically scapegoating this way, it is always ready to change into scapegoating, as soon as others behave improperly. To this positional thinking corresponds a painstaking care of a certain type of justice – in fact a jealous variant of the classical definition of justice as „suum cuique“ („to each his own“) – which has been violated by Jesus in an almost systematic manner. (5)
The distinction between positive-related and negative-limiting identity is meant ideal typically. In reality we will only find shades between these extremes. However, it can happen very easily that a community to which a positive-related identity is ascribable, slips down to the type of a negative-limiting social identity. Biblical insight shows, that this may be due to minimal shifts. And though the type of identity, a community is founded on, may generally be indistinguishable, there exist situations, where this type will get visible in a blatant way. Such situations can be provoked by an action that therefore I want to call community-test: Take a person that lives on the fringe of a certain community and do him or her the honour of putting her in the middle of the community. If the community belongs to the type of positive-related identity, the members will be happy, that a further person has found admission. But if the community belongs to the type of negative-limiting identity, an identity-crisis may rise in the literal sense of the word. There exists an expression, that gets to the heart of this identity-crisis, respectively of the basic identity-type: „Who the hell are we, to associate with this subject?“
It would blur the deep compassion, Jesus expressed for every person, to claim that Jesus applied this community-test to his contemporaries. But at least as a result he did! Jesus repeatedly turned to outcasts and lead them in the middle of a community. Though this action was not motivated by the intention to apply a test, but by the compassion he felt especially with the poor, and – as we will see below – by the attempt to transform the community to a more compassionate way of life, this conduct at the same time had the effect of uncovering the hidden nature of a community. Exactly this happened, when Jesus preached in the Nazarene synagogue. In an invisible but clearly perceptible way, the healed persons of the neighbour village stood in the middle of the crowd. And like a stumbling block the question arouse: „He̓s a Nazarene. Why hasn̓t he begun to heal the sick at our place?“ That̓s positional thinking! The annoyance of the synagogue community showed up, that their cohesion was due to the type of a negative-limiting social identity. But weren̓t the Nazarenes right? Why in fact did Jesus not begin to heal his own sick people? With his action Jesus invited the community of Nazareth to share the happiness of the healed others and so to look beyond of the end of their nose. This way the community would have approached to the type of a positive-related identity. The Nazarenes almost had taken this hurdle, but ultimately they fell back into a negative-limiting identity. In fact, by missing their kairos, the moment of grace, (6) which Jesus had opened up for them, they fell only deeper into the type of a negative-limiting identity. And they were deeply hit by its effect: An identity-crisis threatened the cohesion of the community: „Who the hell are we Nazarenes to be discriminated against Capernaum, which has not brought up a prophet as we have?“ And: „Who the hell are we Jews to be discriminated against the Gentiles, who have no right to benefit from the healing care of our God?“ This identity-crisis drove the Nazarene community to behave in an unbelievably aggressive way: They cast Jesus out of their village and even tried to kill him. After having rejected the chance to take deeper root in a positive-related identity, this was the only way left to them to regain their communal identity, which was threatened by the criticism of Jesus. And this way they could hope to kill two birds with one stone: They would get rid of the critic with his awkward questions, and they would stabilize their identity by being unanimously against the same person. Negative-limited identity would be regained.
There remains an ultimate but crucial question: When healing aims at and salvation consists in a transformation of community from negative-limiting identity to positive-related identity, what did Jesus to realize this transformation? To answer this question we can distinguish three steps.
1. As we have already seen, Jesus firstly invited communities to participate with the happiness of the healed others. If a community finds to such a behaviour, it gets consolidated in a positive-related identity. We can presume, that in some places Jesus reached this goal, perhaps in Capernaum, where Jesus returned back after being chased away from his home village.
2. When this first step failed, Jesus proceeded by uncovering the violent consequences of negative-limiting identity. That̓s why Jesus provoked the Nazarenes by placing other outsiders in the middle of the community, what happened when Jesus demonstrated, that in Old Testament not Jews but Gentiles received the most spectacular healing miracles. Maybe that this exposure set people or communities thinking, but I don̓t know any biblical texts that would proof repentance in this phase. In any case, this second step of Jesus made it impossible, that people stayed indifferent to his message. When they rejected their chance, they inevitably fell into a violent attitude, so that they would support the expulsion of the embarrassing critic, which means ultimately: the expulsion of God. So the second step lead nearly inevitably to the third.
3. The third step consisted in a critical solidarity which meant an ultimate provocation to his adversaries and drove Jesus to his death at the cross. The story of Jesus in the Nazarene synagogue shows, that the consequence of a violent death threatened Jesus up from the beginning of his preaching. But could this help to heal communities? That the crucifixion resulted in a deep transformation of communities is testified by the events of resurrection, by the following sending out of the Holy spirit and by the effect of these events on the disciples and the rising church. How the crucifixion could have this transforming effect on communities, and how it can still have this transforming effect, especially in the sacrament of Eucharist, that̓s an exciting question, suitable to deal with in an other place. (7)
In his book The Scapegoat (Baltimore 1986) René Girard has worked this out with the biblical story of the Gerasene Demoniac.
Elijah had raised the son of a pagan widow from the dead. That was one of the most spectacular healings in Old Testament, worked at a pagan! So did Elisha, but regarding Elisha Jesus refers to another miracle: the healing of a Gentile leprosy. This story contains another provoking element: Due to a misdemeanour, the leprosy of the Gentile passes to one of the disciples of Elisha, a Jew and member of Elisha̓s.
Cf R. Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Maryknoll, NY 2001.
Cf eg the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Mt 20,1–16); The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother (Lk 15,11–32), where the elder brother deplores the injustice of the compassionate father; and the word of Jesus: „But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.“ (Mk 10,31)
Cf the summary of Mark, quoted at the beginning of this essay: »The time (kairós) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.« (Mk 1,15). The kairos is not simply a new epoch which would have started indiscriminately with the public work of Jesus to reach generally until now. It means the qualified time, when it is possible to act corresponding to the kingdom of God. For the Nazarene̓s in the synagogue this kairós lasted only a few minutes, then, as we have shown already, the chance was lost. Of course that does not exclude, that each of the involved persons could have had other kairoi at other time.
Cf Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption. New York 1999. Schwager unfolds the biblical Christology as a drama with five acts. The three steps expounded above correspond to the first three acts that are: proclamation of the kingdom of God, proclamation of judgement, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The fourth and the fifth act are resurrection and sending out of the Holy Spirit.
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