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Podcast: Has Christianity Really Caused More Harm Than Good in the World? (Sharon James)

By Koa Sinag

Podcast: Has Christianity Really Caused More Harm Than Good in the World? (Sharon James)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Answering Those Who Say We’d Be Better Off without Religion

In this episode, Sharon James discusses the fact that many people no longer agree that Christianity is largely a force for good as they would have in decades past, and she makes the case that despite the many failings of many Christians over the centuries, Christianity has indeed been very good for the world.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

  • Does Religion Poison Everything?
  • The Changing View of Christianity in the Western World
  • Haven’t Other Religions Also Been Good for the World?
  • The Good News of Church History
  • An Exhortation to Engage in Culture

01:06 – Does Religion Poison Everything?

Matt Tully
Sharon, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast*.

Sharon James
Thank you so much. It’s great to speak with you, Matt.

Matt Tully
In the introduction to his bestselling book, probably one of his most famous books, God Is Not Great, the late atheist Christopher Hitchens writes, “Religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.” And he ends his introduction to that book with a final three word sentence, a very famous sentence, “Religion poisons everything.” So to kick us off, is that true? Does religion poison everything?

Sharon James
Sin poisons everything, and bad religion is the manifestation of sin. But it’s the perversion of something that should be good. So I make a distinction between real, living Christianity. I started off as a history teacher many years ago and I taught history for some years. The historical record is that yes, bad religion, perverted religion, even false brands of Christianity have done great harm. But when you look at what the real followers of Christ have done through history, it’s been the single most transformative impact for good through human history. So we have to draw a distinction as to what precisely we mean. And I find it quite interesting at the moment, Matt, that we are increasingly finding long-term, almost career atheists—people like Tom Holland—turning around and saying actually, when you look at the historical record, it’s a little bit different to what these atheists have always said. And we have to say, Why do people even care about human beings and justice and compassion and dignity if we were just scientific materialists where everybody is just human material? Why would we care about those things? It’s the ethic introduced by the Lord Jesus Christ. So it is a discussion, and we take seriously these people who have these questions about religion and bad religion. We have to take those very seriously, but then we have to draw some finer distinctions than that.

Matt Tully
Distinctions and nuance. That’s one of those things that I think the more you read some of these—the New Atheists and even other atheists today—the more you see that the nuance is what’s often missing. They kind of slip in and lump together so many disparate things. And I think as evangelical Christians, Bible-believing Christians, we often want to say, Hold on, hold on there. Let’s unpack those premises.

Sharon James
Yeah, but equally, I think we always take everybody seriously in what they are saying. And if speaking to somebody who’s very hostile and very aggressive towards Christianity, for one thing there might be a backstory to that. They might themselves have experienced tremendous injustice or suffering or abuse, maybe even as a child. So there might be a backstory. But the other thing is that, again, I’d come back to the fact, Why are they feeling so strongly about this and why do they even care? It’s because they’ve been made in the image of God and there is that conscience there. So there’s that common ground. However strongly we may seem to disagree with somebody, I think we seek to at least, in our hearts, know that there’s that common ground, take them seriously, listen to what they’re saying, and then come back with some thoughtful points that might cause them to go away and think. We shouldn’t aim to bludgeon anybody into agreeing with us because that will only push them further away from Christ. But rather just plant some seeds of truth there and let them go away and investigate it for themselves.

Matt Tully
And I want to explore that issue of common ground and what that common ground even reveals about a Christian worldview and how it testifies to a Christian worldview in powerful ways. But maybe before we get into that, I wanted to hear a little bit more about you personally and what you do. You currently serve as a social policy analyst for The Christian Institute. And on that organization’s website they write, “God’s design for our world, as revealed in his word, is for the benefit of all people. We seek to encourage and promote the Bible’s teaching so that society can prosper and thrive.” So that leads to my first question for you: What does your day-to-day work entail? And how does that connect to this broader question related to whether or not Christianity is good for the world?

Sharon James
So basically, in the United Kingdom, The Christian Institute is an organization that seeks to equip believers to love their neighbor by engaging in community politics and society for the common good. We have a tremendous privilege as members of a democracy where we can influence policy and where we have freedom to serve our neighbors. We’re aware that busy church leaders don’t always have the time to investigate some of the very fast moving ethical issues around. You think of three parent babies and some of the genetic advances and scientific advances, and then how fast policy is moving on issues like pressure towards medically assisted dying or whatever it may be. So we have a research team that keeps on top of the different policy developments that are going on and watching out for things that could negatively impact people, and then informing Christians as to what’s going on, how they can best campaign, what they can do. But we also have good relations with politicians and we can work with them to provide them with briefings and information and help. My particular job is mainly in staff training. I’ve got a background as a history teacher and having done research in social policy and as well as theology. So I do staff training, but I also get involved in speaking on some issues such as gender ideology or whatever it may be. All is part of our effort to help the church to understand the issues that really matter so that they can then be better citizens for God’s glory.

07:02 – The Changing View of Christianity in the Western World

Matt Tully
That leads into one of the most interesting things about the day in which we live, where organizations like yours are committed to helping Christians be good citizens and, really, the strongest way to embrace a biblical worldview that would lead us to then truly love our neighbor as ourselves. And I think there was a time—maybe this is decades ago at this point—that if you asked most people in the West whether or not Christianity was having a mostly positive or mostly negative impact on the world, they would have said mostly positive. They would have said, Yeah, my Christian neighbors are good people and they’re doing good work, even if I don’t agree with them on some of the religious questions. But it seems to me like those days are now long behind us, where most people have that posture. Are there any stats or metrics related to how Christianity is viewed in the Western world today and how that’s changed, perhaps, in the last few decades?

Sharon James
Well, the certain reality is, as you’ve depicted it, Matt, there was a time, possibly seventy years ago, when the consensus in the Western world would have been that Christian morality was a net positive for society, and an understanding that if a family broke up, for example, that was a negative thing. But then you moved into what many call neutral territory, where there was a pushback against what was regarded as the restrictions of Christian morality. And you entered into a period of time where if you said you were a Christian, people would say, Well, ho hum, ho hum. That’s okay for you, but I’m different. Each to their own. It was all fairly neutral and friendly. But now, fairly quickly, and many would say when you introduce a cultural massive change, like so-called same sex marriage, you quickly move into the territory where today, particularly for younger people, if you say that you believe the Bible, that would instantly raise suspicion that you might be harboring tremendously toxic and bigoted views towards other people. And there’s a negative view of biblical Christianity. So from positive to neutral to negative, there have been a number of academic articles outlining that shift. But my passion, my desire, is simply to raise questions about that assumption that biblical Christianity is a toxic and negative thing. And again, just respectfully pointing to the evidence, both in the past but also globally in the present, and just asking questions. Where today are the regimes that least respect women? You know what? They’re the countries where Christianity has had the least impact. Where are the countries where there is least respect for human rights? Have you ever thought these are the countries that have been least impacted by Biblical Christianity? Where are the countries where there is least provision of education for all? Same answer. And you could go on. I won’t go on, but there are a number of questions you could ask in that way. Christianity is now a global religion. There are biblical and growing churches on every continent and in nearly every nation. And where that living Christianity is spreading it’s having a good social impact. But very often in the West, particularly younger people are being presented with a fairly parochial narrative that just focuses in on the supposed injustices and oppressions of our own nations but fails abysmally to say, Oh no, you know what? In the Sahara area there are about a 100,000 slaves that nobody in the West even knows about or cares about. And those are not Christian countries, which is transparently obvious. So yes, we are living in negative territory, but I think that it’s an exciting moment where instead of taking certain things for granted, we can thoughtfully and respectfully push back and ask people to just look at some of the good story that there is to tell when we look at the past and the present.

Matt Tully
I don’t know if you agree with this, but my sense is that one of the explanations for why, as conservative Christians, we can sometimes feel so out of step and even confused and a little bit discombobulated with the current situation is I think we feel like we moved from that neutral territory you mentioned a minute ago. I remember growing up while in elementary school and the big word was tolerance. It was, Hey, everyone live and let live. We are all allowed to have our own opinions and convictions, and it’s all good and okay, and we’re actually stronger because we have a diversity of opinions on things. And we’ve moved so quickly from tolerance to that negative attitude towards Christian morality and Christian faith. And I think people don’t understand why that happened. I’m sure there are many factors there. I’m sure it’s a complex story, but briefly, could you summarize? Are there some core issues that drove that change and made that happen so quickly?

Sharon James
Well, I think that the tremendous speed at which the whole supposed freedom of complete individual personal autonomy moved is a big thing. For many young people now, they’re brought up—and it’s not their fault—they’re brought up in an environment that says if somebody hurts your feelings, that is actually as bad as real violence against you. So there is to be no space for anyone even saying anything or having what in the olden days we would regard as an open and honest discussion. That is toxic because it might hurt your feelings. So it’s that world of the autonomous self where nobody can challenge your feelings, and that of course is very much a manifestation of what many describe as the new world of identity politics where we are defined by our own construction of our own identity and our own being. And then again, nobody can challenge that and nobody can question that. And then it depends how deep you want to go, Matt, but you’re into the whole world of identity politics in terms of seeing the world as divided between those who are oppressed and then those other groups who are oppressing them. And then the oppressor groups, on block and on mass, are said to have no right to speak at all, because speaking from their perspective might be seen to be oppressing other people and, again, hurting their feelings and far worse. So fairly suddenly, long-term intellectual currents, which have been simmering for decades and longer, have suddenly become very, very apparent and our culture is more deeply divided in an unhelpful and very aggressive way than has been the case for a long time. But again, I’m not a pessimist, and I would simply say as many people—ordinary people—look out on the current culture wars and identity politics and the toxicity in current discourse, I think many are saying there’s something wrong. And this is our moment, as followers of Jesus Christ, to say, Well, in this moment the Bible has the really good news that we’re one human race. We are all descended from the same first parents. We are not to be divided into these tribes. We’re one, and there is human dignity for all of us. So I think the biblical message is so beautiful and shines so brightly just at this moment when we’ve been catapulted into a toxic world of identity politics and deep intolerance.

Matt Tully
So if identity politics and all that that entails, this prioritization of individual personal autonomy and our own conception of ourselves, if that’s one of the main streams that’s led to where we are today, it seems like another one that we often hear that maybe is related to that but maybe is a little distinct is just the issue of a lack of trust in Christian leaders and Christian institutions. And I think you note this stat in your book, that a quarter of all Gen Z teens say that Christian hypocrisy is a significant barrier to faith for them. What do you make of that? Is that something that we would do well to really pay attention to and consider? Is there a reckoning that needs to happen for Christians? Or is that maybe just reflective of a new emphasis, or an overemphasis, on our own fallibility as Christians?

Sharon James
Well, I think the biblical truth is that the human heart is sinful and deceitful, and the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. So it’s not as if when somebody professes Christ they are instantly transformed and become sinless. And Jesus warns against wolves in sheep’s clothing. He warns against those who profess faith but don’t bear good fruit. So we would simply say by their fruits you know them. And there are people who profess Christ who do wrong things. Now at that point, I think we have to be realistic and say the media loves those stories and blows them up and yet does not tell the underlying reality of the many, many faithful ministers who never abuse members of their congregation; the many faithful youth leaders who never take advantage of the youth in their youth groups; the many who are doing good who are not involved in these scandals. And I think that we should just be realistic about that and say of course we would absolutely abhor genuine abuse, and there should be church discipline and civil discipline (civil authorities intervening at those points), but let’s not do ourselves down. And I do sometimes think Christians can naively play the part of useful idiots, where they themselves headline the worst possible stories, and then really just miss the point. What about those faithful many who are not engaged in any of that? I think that we can be quite naive in that way. We just have to be, as Jesus said, wise and innocent, gentle and strong, and and not just start saying what they want us to say and apologizing for great historic ills that a few people, yes, committed but that has not been the general reality of the great weight of good that the real Christian church has done.

17:02 – Haven’t Other Religions Also Been Good for the World?

Matt Tully
Let’s talk about that—the weight of good. You argue that the ideals of justice and freedom and compassion are all based on a biblical worldview. And I think someone could hear that and say maybe we can find the antecedents for an emphasis on those things in society in Scripture (and I’d love to hear you even point to a few places where we see that), but they would say you can find emphasis on those ideals in other religions and other philosophies and worldviews too. So why would you say that those things really have their roots in a biblical worldview?

Sharon James
Because the biblical truth that God created humanity, man and woman in his own image (Gen. 1) even some, and I mentioned the atheist Tom Holland earlier on who seems to be on a moving track towards Christianity, he would say Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are the foundation of all respect for human dignity. When you look, for example, at India, it’s a very, very religious country, but you listen to the testimony of a convert like Vishal Mangalwadi—who knew the Indian religions very, very well. He and his wife worked among the poor in India for many years, and they said that the great religions in that place—Buddhism, Islam, and then secularism—did not provide a strong enough basis for seeing every vulnerable little human life as precious—the youngest frail female lives, which are regarded still, sadly, as disposable. And you listen to the testimonies of Indian Christians, of which there are many despite great pressures, who are seeking to provide hope and meaning to Indians in the so-called untouchable class, which is a hideous, hideous relic of the caste system, which is theoretically and legally outlawed, but it is still a reality in India. So of course, again, I say because we do believe all human beings are made in the image of God. When you get human beings in those different world systems and religions and philosophies, and indeed secularism, many are capable of doing great good because we believe God has wired them up to find satisfaction in serving others. So we’re not having a simplistic “all Christians are good and everybody else is evil” kind of cartoon character version of it. But actually, when you look at the reality, nations which have embraced the Biblical worldview have gone down the route of awarding civic rights and democratic freedoms to all. I cite in several places a massive two volume survey published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. A whole array of scholars from a whole array of countries, and even indeed continents, looking at the historical evidence and saying where Bible-believing missionaries have had impact, those countries have more literacy, more printing, more education, and then more democracy and freedom and representative rule and such like and so forth because of the belief that every human being—whatever their ability, whatever their capacity—is made in the image of God and should be respected. And then the second thing coming in on that is simply the example of the Lord Jesus Christ—servant leadership. That leaders and governors should not be there for their own benefit and to feather their own nests but for the advantage and for the benefit of those being led. And Christianity provides that great, great model of authority being for the benefit of those who are being led, not for the furtherance of the one in authority.

Matt Tully
When you have conversations with atheists or secularists or maybe just people of other religions, and you use this argument that a biblical worldview provides the best foundation for some of these foundational moral principles and ideas that undergird certainly Western society but even other societies as well around the world, what is the argument that they might come back with? How might they make the case that actually we don’t need a Christian worldview to have a robust morality?

Sharon James
Well, I think often they would come back with personal examples of people they know. And I myself could say when I’ve seen relatives and friends going through severe illness, you think of the people who’ve cared for them in the healthcare system. Many of those people might be Bible-believing Christians, but others will not be. And some of those people who are not still provide excellent care for people I love, and I’m very grateful for that and respectful of that. But then on the whole thing of secular atheism and the New Atheism and the horsemen of atheism all the rest of it, the reality is that if you believe that we are all here as products of chance and we’re just effectively human material because we are products blind Darwinian evolution, that actually removes any very powerful reason to say that you should protect every human life. And it can slip very quickly into what we are now seeing advancing in the West, which is a culture of death, the advance of the disrespect of unborn life, the experimentation on embryos, the advances towards saying that lives that lose capacity should be effectively killed off. Think of what terrible things are going on in Canada, where effectively it’s cheaper to kill people than to care for poor people. One in twenty deaths they say now are medically assisted dying. And really handicapped, really poor disabled people are offered the option of medically assisted dying. So you’ve got terrible, terrible examples of that in the 20th century, where you’ve got the major, massive, atheistic regimes regarding their people as just human material. And Atheistic communism, it’s said, led to the deaths of 148 million people, whereas the idea of divine creation, God creating humanity in his image and saying, He who oppresses the poor despises me, the Creator—that’s a very strong ethic to care for all. And then the God who created all saying, At the last day, rulers will be accountable to me for what they’ve done, and no one is above the law. And that’s the foundation of the rule of law, and the freest countries on earth have been founded on that biblical Magna Carta foundation of the king is not above the law; the king is under the law. And that’s straight out of the Old Testament actually.

Matt Tully
I could see some of this being persuasive for somebody on certain kinds of issues where we can say Christians have, on the whole, embraced these ideals throughout history and have therefore helped to restrain evil that we see around us in our society and what have you. But then what about those issues where it seems like, or at least the way it’s presented oftentimes, it seems like most Christians were actually in favor of something that we now would say was a really a heinous sin. Obviously, the biggest biggest example of this is the issue of race and racism and slavery, where we can see in the West—in America and even earlier in Great Britain—slavery was a common thing, and we actually saw many Christians advocating for it and using Scripture, using the Bible, to make an explicitly Christian or biblical case for slavery. And I think that can lead some people to think all of this is just sort of a game. You’re just using the Bible to make whatever point is your preference at the moment. How would you respond to that kind of critique?

Sharon James
On the slavery thing, you have to take the global picture. In other words, rather than taking, with all respect, rather than taking America, you take the global picture and you say, for one, pretty well every civilization in every time has rested on a bedrock of slavery. And there’s historical evidence for that. Thomas Sowell has come out with a huge amount of, if you like, global work on that and looking at the global picture. And then for number two, from the very early point, Christianity in its DNA was opposed to slavery. You look at the early church fathers. You look at Chrysostom, the golden-tongued preacher. He castigated slavery as an abuse. He told his congregation, If you have the wealth, yes, buy slaves, but then teach them a trade and set them free. That’s what Jesus would want you to do. Lactantius, another great early church father, said slavery is an absolute violation and abomination when you think that we are all made in the image of God. And so in the early church era, as Christianity spread, by the time it became the majority religion, eventually slavery died out because Christians had the revolutionary practice of saying that in Christ there is neither slave nor free. And whereas no pagan cult ever would have a meal where slaves and free sat down together. From day one, at the Lord’s table, slaves and free sat down together and ate together, which in that context was utterly revolutionary. Now, horribly, later on in the history of the West, slavery came back in a gruesome form in terms of the transatlantic slave trade. It’s said that when Queen Elizabeth I of England heard about that, first she said, “This will call down the wrath of heaven.” But sadly, it did become embedded as an economic practice. But then, when you look at the 18th century, it was the Christians, the evangelical Christians, who were the first to actually campaign against successfully and first abolish the slave trade in 1807, and then slavery itself in 1833. And again, when you look globally at the situation where slavery has been entrenched in many, many nations, there have not been similar abolition movements, but it’s been the evangelicals who successfully carried those through. And when you look at the present day, Matt, I would say just wake up and ask, What’s going on today? Some say that there are more slaves today than ever before. And the major driver behind that is global exploitation through the pornography, prostitution, sex trafficking, child trafficking business. Now what’s driving that? It is not biblical Christianity. Because Christians are at the forefront of opposing all of that. And we are absolutely adamantly opposed to pornography and prostitution and sex trafficking and so on and so forth. And Christians in many places are risking their lives to oppose those hideous evils. So we absolutely abhor the fact that at certain points in the West, there were some Christians who wrongly defended slavery. But equally, it was Bible-believing Christians who prevailed against that, and one would name great heroes like William Wilberforce but there were so many others. But then you would say look at what’s happening today. And the reality is if you want to be in the forefront of fighting slavery, you’ll probably look at things like the International Justice Mission, which is sacrificially funded by many, many Christians.

27:41 – The Good News of Church History

Matt Tully
It’s so interesting. It’s striking to me how much of this conversation around even the broad topic of is Christianity good for the world, it has this historical dimension to it. We’re looking to the past and we’re discussing what Christians have done in history. And so often, though, it seems like even Bible-believing Christians don’t know the history. As a society, we just are not that interested in history, and so that means the first person who has some kind of comment about what may or may not have happened in the past or some characterization of the past, that’s sort of then the default way we think about it. Have you found that to be the case? And how do you seek to raise awareness about some of the true stories, the good stories, of history and how Christians have interacted with the world?

Sharon James
Well, I think that it’s encouraging to see that there are younger Christians who not only love to explore biblical truth, which is wonderful, but they actually enjoy history and church history because at the end of the day, God is glorified through his word and through his works. And you look at the magnificent works of God through history, through providence, and he uses great non-Christians for his purposes sometimes. You think of somebody like Winston Churchill, but he also uses very ordinary Christians. In all of my writing, in the various books I’ve written, I’ve sought to tell the stories of ordinary Christians, some of them unknown, who have achieved tremendously transformative things in their own communities. And I want us today to be encouraged that we shouldn’t be intimidated by the toxic story around. We can be looking around to say, What can I do in my own context, in my own situation to reach out and love neighbor? It’s tremendously powerful to look at the social result of great awakenings. So when there was a great awakening in the 18th century, that spilled over into the 19th century, which was the great age of philanthropy, when you had Christians taking the lead in prison reform and the reform of care of the mentally ill, educational reform, factory reform, and so forth. It was Christians driving that in different Western countries. But then if you could flip back right to the early centuries again, it was Christians who built hospitals, leprosariums, cared for the elderly—all of this revolutionary and pioneering for the first time. Most Christians have heard of the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed (325). The Nicene Creed is tremendous. They forget that the Council of Nicaea said that wherever there was a big Christian church (they were called cathedrals) there should also be a hospital to care for the poor and the needy. So this is a whole side of Christian history that many are lamentably ignorant about. But it’s very exciting, it’s very engaging, it’s very inspiring. And I think that hopefully it can inspire us not to be so negative about our own history, not to be so intimidated when people come at us with little cherry-picked bits of, Oh, but what about this? Oh, but what about that? But also we can make it practical and say, What can I do to make a difference in my own community? Even if it’s just committing to going and visiting elderly people regularly if they’re lonely. Well, we can all find something to do to make our own communities happier and more God-honoring places.

30:47 – An Exhortation to Engage in Culture

Matt Tully
That’s a great encouragement for us as we think about not just the ideas here but actually the practically living out this ethic of good for our neighbor and good for society. Thinking locally, thinking about our literal neighbors, snow blowing your neighbor’s driveway or what have you. I wonder, though, beyond that, if someone wants to maybe get more involved and wants to be more intentional on these fronts of helping to make the case that Christianity is good for the world and be involved in actually making a positive difference, what advice would you give someone to think about what are the big issues that you see today? And as we think about how we spend our time or our resources, financial or otherwise, what would be some of the big issues that you would say it might be worth looking into and finding ways to get involved with?

Sharon James
Well, if you have the view, which is a biblical view, that God is the giver of life and that whoever sheds the blood of mankind than by God his blood should be shed, that taking human life is a heinous crime, then I would say that the crime that is calling out to God from the ground at the moment is the crime of taking unborn life. Seventy-three million a year snuffed out globally, vast numbers in the Western world, but globally now because we’ve pushed abortion policies globally. And I think that in every country there are good pro-life initiatives and groups that one can engage with both on a policy and campaigning issue but also on a practical care issue. There are many fantastic volunteer organizations that seek to help women who are traumatized because of past abortions. And anyone who has gone through that should always seek help. There is hope, there is healing, there is a future, there’s a better tomorrow when we look to Jesus. So there are good and practical things people can do, and lives can be saved. And that is a frontline thing. Also, if you’re concerned about social justice, which I am, I’m deeply concerned about social justice, but one of the biggest drivers of inequality and poverty and injustice is the breaking down of the family. So again, there are good policy organizations in different Western countries which are seeking constructively to say rather than smashing up stable family relationships, what can we be doing to support stable family relationships based on man-woman marriage, which is the best framework for children to be reared in on every single measurable statistical basis. So I think that those are just two. There are obviously other public policy issues as well, but I think the big thing is that we are called to love neighbor. And that doesn’t mean hiding away in our little Christian ghettos and not worrying about the wider society and just saying, Well, it’s getting so bad, let’s just give up on it. Not at all! We still have freedom, and we should engage as we can and as God calls us, whether in the practical day-to-day care or whether on more thoughtful policy engagement levels. Many organizations cover both, but in your own context you will no doubt find the biblical and faithful organizations that are doing good.


Matt Tully
Sharon, thank you so much for taking the time today to talk with us about these important issues, these difficult issues, but things that I think all of us as Christians want to be better equipped to know how to engage with our neighbors, with our friends, with our family, perhaps, and make the case that Christianity is indeed good for the world.

Sharon James
Well, thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you, Matt.


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