A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Submission to authority figures — the Milgram Experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment

Many people behave unethically when they are instructed to do so by what they perceive as a legitimate authority figure.

If you have suffered abuse, whether it be emotional, spiritual, psychological, physical or sexual abuse, you might be asking “How can someone be so cruel?” 

The Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment have shown how quickly people can become abusive.

Both of those experiments were unethical. Some participants in these experiments have spoken up about the deleterious effects the experiments had on them.

Many unethical experiments have been done by scientists and psychologists.

Trigger warning: Some individuals might find certain parts of the video triggering.

This video summarises what happened in the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment. The presenter is Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment.

 

The Milgram Shock Experiment: “Obedience to Authority”

Milgram set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist.

The results showed the willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths of cruelty, on the command of an authority figure.

To explain the findings of the experiment, Milgram theorised that people have two states of behavior when they are in a social situation:

  • The autonomous state —
    • People direct their own actions and take responsibility for the results of those actions.
  • The agentic state —
    • People allow others to direct their actions and then pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders. People act as agents for another person’s will.

This helps us think about Sheep, Shepherds and Wolves in the church.

Sheep are told to follow the leader:  the under-shepherd, pastor, priest, ordained minister, ordained elder in the institutional church.

  • Some of the ordained leaders are good under-shepherds of Christ.
  • Some  of them are wolves.
  • Some of them are blind and naive to the depths of undercover evil in institutional churches.

When sheep follow wolves or blind-naive leaders, the sheep will be tangled in thickets and the sheep may be chewed by wolves.

Sheep-like following of human leaders is risky. Obedience to human leaders is risky. Individual personal responsibility is never entirely erased.

But… Jesus has died for our sins so that all who come to faith in Jesus receive mercy and forgiveness.

The penalty for wrong doing has been laid on Jesus, so that all who come to faith in Him do not have to personally bear the penalty for their wrongdoing. Christ has borne it for them.

24 Comments

  1. This is an important comparison — thank you, Barbara. I remember when I first watched the Stanford and Milgram experiments in 2011 or 2012. They were shocking and eye-opening.

  2. Finding Answers

    From the original post “The Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment have shown how quickly people can become abusive.”

    ^That.

    Rebecca commented (11TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 9:00 AM) “……I remember when I first watched the Stanford and Milgram experiments……”

    ^That.

    From the original post “This video summarises what happened in the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment…….”

    I watched the video and read the linked document (The Milgram Shock Experiment: “Obedience to Authority”) some time ago.

    ^That provided me with a picture in my mind for what a lifetime of abuse had done to me.

    Around the same time, the Holy Spirit led me to an actual picture of an individual whose face showed agony and horror FAR worse than that expressed in the well-known painting The Scream.

    I titled the actual picture of the individual (whose face showed agony and horror) The Silent Scream.

    The Silent Scream provided me with a picture in my mind for my experience of extreme abuse.

    In the same comment, Rebecca commented “….They were shocking and eye-opening.”

    ^That describes the pictures in my mind for my life.

    From the original post “The penalty for wrong doing has been laid on Jesus, so that all who come to faith in Him do not have to personally bear the penalty for their wrongdoing. Christ has borne it for them.”

    ^That is true, but the consequences of the extreme abuse done to me (an innocent infant and child) will remain with me for the rest of my earthly life.

    My eternal life is secure, but my remaining time on earth (from now until eternity) bears the scars of other humans’ sins.

    [Link to the painting The Scream has been added in this comment by Barb]

    • James

      Finding Answers you wrote –
      “That is true, but the consequences of the extreme abuse done to me (an innocent infant and child) will remain with me for the rest of my earthly life.

      My eternal life is secure, but my remaining time on earth (from now until eternity) bears the scars of other humans’ sins.

      Amen. Well said.

    • To Finding Answers,
      I am so glad that watching and reading Phillip Zimbardo’s video and The Milgram Shock Experiment: “Obedience to Authority” brought you insights that have helped your healing.

      • Finding Answers

        In my comment (11TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 10:55 AM), Barb added this text “[Link to the painting The Scream has been added in this comment by Barb]”

        Thank you for adding the link, Barb. 🙂

        Although I know more than one location where the actual picture of the individual I titled The Silent Scream is available, I am NOT (for obvious reasons 🙂 ) including a link.

        In the same comment of mine, I wrote “……the consequences of the extreme abuse done to me (an innocent infant and child) will remain with me for the rest of my earthly life.”

        I now trigger at unexpected times, in unexpected ways, to things I cannot explain to anyone.

        The title of the post “Submission to authority figures — the Milgram Experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment”

        Unfortunately for me, I am sometimes triggered by ANY kind of authority, even God. God knows my mind, my heart, and my soul, but even HE can unintentionally trigger memories embedded within me.

        Healing, communicating the truth, learning how to communicate so others can understand me, etc. is NOT a simple task for me.

        ^That, BTW, is NOT communicated from a personal pity party. I merely include the statement so the remainder of my comment can be understood.

        I can only imagine how tiring it might be for another (human) individual to communicate with me.

        For me, I am still struggling to understand / believe / etc. the same fatigue another (human) individual might experience when communicating with me does NOT apply to God.

  3. James

    Barb, such a valuable post. If we think we are ‘good’ and wouldn’t harm another knowingly, we had better think again because some ‘wolf’ will soon enough take advantage of our own naivety and self deception.

    These experiments were carried out in the US at a time when Christianity, in terms of church attendance and social acceptability, was at its peak. So it worth considering that many of the participants would have been church-going Christians.

    What went wrong and why?

    Jesus taught “The Way”. So what is The Way? What are its principles? As Christians, are we taught the Way or are we being taught to obey?

    • Good questions James! Maybe you would like to try your hand at answering some of them. 🙂

      One thing that struck me about Zimbardo’s video was that the person who protested vehemently to Zimbardo about the harm the experiment was doing was a woman.

      It’s a while since I watched the video, but as I recall, all the other people involved in the experiment were men. A woman protested…and her protests persuaded Zimbardo to stop the experiment. That woman was Zimbardo’s research assistant, and later he married her. It doesn’t say much for Zimbardo’s character that someone else had to sternly point out to him how unethical the experiment was, and only then did he stop it.

      • James

        Barb, you would ask me that! I was hoping (and still do) that others would answer those questions! Anyway, long comment following.
        The question, “As Christians, are we taught the Way or are we being taught to obey?” is to an extent a rhetorical question. The example of Jesus is taught and preached, of course, but it is the nature of religions and churches to organise themselves along hierarchical principles and are thus power organisations. It is fundamental to a power organisation to require obedience. So obedience is taught in a hundred different ways often under the guise of obedience to Christ when it is actually obedience to a church authority.

        ‘What is The Way and what are its principles?’ These were genuine questions on my part. I was hoping for input from others to them.

        Since you have asked me specifically, Barb, I guess my short answer is the teachings of Jesus are best summarised by him in Matthew ch 5-7. You could write a book about those chapters, no doubt, and I guess many have been written. On the other hand, distilling those chapters down to a few principles would require quite a bit of work, I would think. Perhaps it has been done. I would love to know.

        We talked [here] about “Blessed are the meek” and touched on “Blessed are the peacemakers” and the principle of ‘loving your enemies’. But there is much more to them and others commented that they had not heard these principles or ‘Beatitudes’ talked about in the way that we did here. There are many other ‘beatitudes’ which I have not heard expounded upon in any meaningful way. But that might be just my experience.

        John Ch 8 is another essential teaching from Jesus, imho. The principle of truth and telling the truth are given a lot of weight. “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed on him, if you continue in my words, then you are my disciples, and shall know the truth; and the truth shall make you free” (John Ch 8: 30-32 NMB)

        Certainly, in that chapter, the telling of lies is equated with belonging to the Kingdom of Darkness. Satan is described as being the Father of Lies. Truth telling cleaves the disciples of Jesus from the children of Satan. Equally, telling lies cleaves us from being disciples of Jesus.

        It is logically obvious that we cannot take lies with us into heaven. Therefore we have to leave them at the gate, so to speak. How do we do that? I think the only way is to face all those lies we have told ourselves and others – a very painful education – but healing and freedom is the result. I guess most people know someone who will not face some truth in their lives, no matter what; perhaps something that they have done.

        So, unfortunately, it wouldn’t surprise me if the task is beyond some people when they pass over, especially those who have perpetrated great evil. So, it might be best to start telling the truth here and now. Plus, we are set free of the chains that lies weigh us down with and keep us as slaves to passions and perpetrators to lesser and greater extents – “and the truth shall set you free”.

        And telling the truth is healing. One has to be discriminating as whom you tell personal histories to, of course. Being scrupulous with the truth in your daily speech can be quite a challenge but the reward is mental health. I have been severely abused and I know others who have had the same treatment. Those that have been meticulous and even brutal with themselves in being truthful have had real healing from the evil that has been perpetrated on them (complete healing as if the evil never happened is not going to come about in this life, of course). But . . . “the truth shall set you free”.

        Those that I know that have not been able to meet that challenge have struggled for many years to achieve any real progress towards healing.

        There is yet another benefit to being scrupulous with the truth in what you say (and this includes doing what you say) and that is that you more easily hear when others are lying to you or embellishing the truth or leaving out crucial information. You ‘hear’ it because you have been listening very closely to what you have been saying and observing all the little tricks you pull on yourself and others. So you recognise it in others.

        This becomes very useful in discerning whether an authority is a ‘shepherd’ or a ‘wolf’. The wolf will tell lies – like his father the devil.

        So I would say being scrupulous with the truth is one principle of The Way. Others I would add are the principle of Self Defence, the principle of Peacemaking and the principle of Loving your Enemies.

        But there is much more such as humility and what humility really is. I would really appreciate it if others would weigh in with their knowledge on this crucial subject.

        [link added to this comment by Barb]

      • “Jesus taught ‘The Way’. So what is The Way? What are its principles?”James asked these questions.

        Question 1. What is The Way?

        The Way is Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life. And no one comes to the Father except by me.” (John 14:6)

        Mercy, forgiveness, cleansing, righteousness, eternal life, knowing and enjoying the love of God — these gifts are offered freely to all who repent of (turn from) their self-reliance/ self-fixing/ self-righteousness and put their trust and faith in Jesus for their salvation.

        “For if you acknowledge with your mouth that Jesus is the Lord, and believe with your heart that God raised him up from death, you will be safe.” (Romans 10:9)

        Question 2. What are the principles of The Way?

        our list so far:

        — Being scrupulous with the truth. The truth will set you free. Being scrupulous with the truth in your daily speech and actions can be quite a challenge, but the reward is mental health.
        — Self Defence
        — Peacemaking
        — Loving your Enemies

        I have the feeling I will be adding more principles to this list when I have given more thought to it.

        Thank you James for starting the ball rolling. 🙂

      • Finding Answers

        James commented (12TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 5:35 PM) “And telling the truth is healing……”

        Amen to ^That.

        In the same comment, James commented, “We talked about “Blessed are the meek” and touched on “Blessed are the peacemakers” and the principle of ‘loving your enemies’…..”

        ^That. (For new ACFJ readers, James is referring to some previously published ACFJ posts on these specific topics.)

        I would add to James’ list Barb’s series of posts on Blindness which have generated some excellent discussions on truth-telling, blindness (of many kinds), etc.

      • Finding Answers

        Adding on to my own comment (12TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 6:17 PM).

        From the original post “…..Jesus has died for our sins so that all who come to faith in Jesus receive mercy and forgiveness.”

        ^That.

        I commented: “(For new ACFJ readers, James is referring to ACFJ has some previously published ACFJ posts on these specific topics.)”

        (Strikethrough and the words “ACFJ has” added by me.)

  4. Verisimilitude commented on this at Twitter:

    • Finding Answers

      Barb commented (11TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 11:48 PM) “Verisimilitude commented on this at Twitter:”

      “I met Prof. Zimbardo a few years ago. He regrets the experiment.”

      Prof. Zimbardo regretted his experiment, and (for the most part), I TOTALLY agree with him.

      My ONLY disagreement with Prof. Zimbardo and his experiment is that the video of the experiment provided a picture in my mind for what a lifetime of abuse had done to me.

      From the original post “This helps us think about Sheep, Shepherds and Wolves in the church.”

      ^That.

      James commented (11TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 8:29 PM) “……..As Christians, are we taught the Way or are we being taught to obey?”

      For me, I obey the Holy Spirit from love.

      For me, the Holy Spirit does not “drive” me “with a whip”.

      ^That does NOT mean I follow the Holy Spirit blindly. I ask Him a LOT of questions. 🙂

      Fortunately for me, the Holy Spirit is gracious and kind, answering MOST of my questions. Some of my questions cannot or will not be answered because I am human and He is God.

      ^That (to a small degree) helps me understand the struggles of various individuals in the Bible.

      From the original post “Many people behave unethically when they are instructed to do so by what they perceive as a legitimate authority figure.”

      ^That.

      From the original post “…..Jesus has died for our sins so that all who come to faith in Jesus receive mercy and forgiveness.”

      ^That.

      • Finding Answers

        An add-on to my above comment (12TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 11:00 AM)

        I wrote: For me, I obey the Holy Spirit from love.

        ^That indicates I am following Authority.

        I wrote: For me, the Holy Spirit does not “drive” me “with a whip”.

        If I am driven by a literal whip or figurative “whip”, I would be following “authority”.

  5. Not Too Late

    I am afraid that my pastors/ministers/leaders created a culture that reinforced and rewarded obedience to authority. They may have preached that we shouldn’t blindly follow leaders, but they certainly strongly emphasized the importance of obeying leaders. I didn’t ever hear many ministers emphasizing the importance of questioning and thinking critically.

    I read that the Milgram experiment has been repeated in many different settings over the years, with similar results. I wonder how different the results would be if all the participants were evangelical Christians, and the leader in the experiment a pastor? Would even fewer people object and refuse to obey, and only at higher levels of shock?

    • Thank you Not Too Late for this comment!

      If the Milgram experiment had been repeated with a pastor as the authority figure, and evangelical christians as the participants, would even fewer participants object and refuse to obey, and only at higher levels of shock?

      Good question!

      If the authority figure was a famous & respected pastor in evangelical circles, my guess is that fewer participants would have refused to obey.

      If the authority figure spun some story about how the electric shocks were being given to discipline people who had “brought the church into disrepute” because they’d questioned corrupt pastors and exposed corruption in the institutional church, my guess is that the participants would have obeyed even more readily.

  6. Finding Answers

    I wrote (13TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 11:40 AM): “Healing, communicating the truth, learning how to communicate so others can understand me, etc. is NOT a simple task for me.”

    ^That.

    Plus a lifetime of abuse, including extreme abuse starting the day I was born. (Omitting details for my protection.)

    Plus a lifetime of (potential) dreams.

    Barb commented (11TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 9:36 PM) “One thing that struck me about Zimbardo’s video was that the person who protested vehemently to Zimbardo about the harm the experiment was doing……”

    ^That.

    As an Asperger Christian who follows the leading of the Holy Spirit (Authority), I felt (in the emotional sense) like an experiment, constantly changing how I communicate with other (human) individuals, and struggling to find the words I needed to communicate with them.

    Barb commented (13TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 1:49 AM) “….Being scrupulous with the truth. The truth will set you free….”

    For me, ^That meant confronting myself and telling myself a painful truth. Another (potential) dream for me would never come true.

    The death of dreams is excruciatingly painful, but when Authority (the Holy Spirit) tells me the dreams were only potential dreams for me, I grieve even as I place the newest (potential) dream in the bin.

    Now the Holy Spirit has a blank page on which to communicate. I need to wait until He (the Holy Spirit, Authority) provides me with the words I need to understand my next step.

    Patience is NOT one of my virtues. 🙂

    • I’ve been letting go of some dreams myself. It is a painful and delicate process.

    • Finding Answers

      Adding on to my own comment (15TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 1:02 PM).

      I wrote: “As an Asperger Christian who follows the leading of the Holy Spirit (Authority), I felt (in the emotional sense) like an experiment, constantly changing how I communicate with other (human) individuals, and struggling to find the words I needed to communicate with them.”

      ^That.

      I also wrote: “The death of dreams is excruciatingly painful, but when Authority (the Holy Spirit) tells me the dreams were only potential dreams for me, I grieve even as I place the newest (potential) dream in the bin.”

      ^That.

      I also wrote: “Now the Holy Spirit has a blank page on which to communicate……”

      ^That.

      With each potential dream, I have learned a new “language”, acting as an interface / translator / bridge / interpreter / advocate between different individuals / groups / etc. (Omitting details for my protection.)

      I repeat what I have communicated MANY times, elsewhere and in comments on the ACFJ blog. I am a jack-of-all-trades.

      As a jack-of-all-trades, I communicate in the language(s) needed at any given time.

      For me, however, I must maintain my own language or I become someone other than me.

      My “languages” may change, but my identity as a child of God remains the same.

      • Finding Answers said:

        “I must maintain my own language or I become someone other than me. My ‘languages’ may change, but my identity as a child of God remains the same.”

        I think these words by Finding Answers will find an echo in the heart of every genuine Christian.

        In the last few months I have been reviewing my relationship with a member of my family whom I have known since childhood. As a result of this review, I have decided to respond and interact with that person in a more guarded way, a way that will better protect me .

        Finding Answers words perfectly express my new stance:
        I must maintain my own language or I become someone other than me.

        I am often conveying my new stance in body language without using words. I’m sometimes using words; but more often I am using body language, gaze, facial expressions. And I’m more often standing back…being silent and present…observant. Not showing my cards. Not laying my heart open so it can be stabbed or mocked. This tips the dynamics.

        The person is aware of my new stance. The person senses that I am no longer a pushover —— no longer someone to be crushed, disparaged, disrespected, ordered around.

  7. Karen

    “I am often conveying my new stance in body language without using words. I’m sometimes using words; but more often I am using body language, gaze, facial expressions. And I’m more often standing back…being silent and present…observant. Not showing my cards. Not laying my heart open so it can be stabbed or mocked. This tips the dynamics.”
    [ quote from comment by Barbara]

    Well stated and articulated Barbara, and actually Biblically inspiring for those who have been abused by a spouse, family member, religious leader, co-worker, boss, etc. The scripture verse that came to mind in reading your personal testimony bear witness to your experience, “Guard your heart with all diligence, for from it flow springs of life.” Proverbs 4:23

    As Bereans in our modern day, each one of us who are children of Christ Jesus, must test everything against the teachings of our Great Teacher, Jesus, for His Way is the final Way to eternal life with Him. Our personal “springs of life” do not originate with any human being, man or woman, here on this earth, but with Christ only, thus we must always be on guard with those who secretly seek to maim, kill, and destroy the Power of the Holy Spirit that lives gloriously inside of us. Wicked and evil people will seek diligently to “dry up those springs of life,” leaving their targets parched and barren, without the glorious life that our LORD breathed into us from the very beginning. These individuals are abundant…..on religious blogs and forums, in the churches, in the workplace, in educational systems, in the political/governmental arena, in philanthropic organizations, and even in the most important and basic social institution that our LORD created, the family; every social sector has its share of wolves in sheep’s clothing whose motives are carefully and cunningly disguised “as good” to the rest of the world.

    But those who test the spirits through prayer, study, and relying upon His Spirit, will see the obvious truth and will diligently seek to guard their own hearts and springs of life. And at times, when the appropriate opportunity presents itself, the discerning will warn others of the impending danger with that dysfunctional person, family, organization, church, or any other social institution —— giving the warning takes courage, fortitude, and skill, because there is a genuine concern for that person’s soul. Those individuals are rare, very rare, as there are consequences for doing good in this world as well, giving the glory to our LORD, instead of the human self.

    The concept of “authority” in and of itself, has been wielded like a sword into blatant idolatry, worldwide. Thus the words of Jesus, “all authority belongs to Me,” have been replaced with a humanistic system that desperately tries to mimic a christ-life figure, and yet, fails desperately due to the fact that it secretly seeks to dry up individuals’ springs of life and critical thinking skills in seeking truth in every area of this earthly life.

    What happened to Jesus when He did not bow down to human authority, especially pertaining to visible, earthly religion, where the religious leaders love to lord it over others? Have the “times” really changed that much?

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and well articulated comment, Karen 🙂

      I hadn’t thought of Proverbs 4:23 applying to my change of stance with my family member, so especially I want to thank you for that insight.

      “Guard your heart with all diligence, for from it flow springs of life.”

  8. Finding Answers

    I have been pondering some thoughts generated by the original post, the embedded Phillip Zimbardo video, and the linked Obedience to Authority document.

    Consider Ernest Hemingway. Almost everyone thought Ernest Hemingway was paranoid because he (Ernest Hemingway) kept communicating that he (Ernest Hemingway) believed he (Ernest Hemingway) was being followed (etc.). Many years later, documents were released to the public proving Ernest Hemingway HAD been followed (etc.).

    Consider individuals with PTSD, C-PTSD, and other “labels” who are constantly on alert, their (the individual’s) nervous system hyper-vigilant (at any given time, for any number of reasons). In a multi-story building made of concrete or cement (I can never remember the proper distinction between the two materials 🙂 ), sound is transmitted over long distances through the building material itself. The sound can be difficult to identify in terms of a) where the sound MIGHT have originated, and b) what MIGHT have caused the original sound.

    Consider individuals who are physically ill. Some symptoms are readily identifiable (fever, bleeding, blisters, etc.), although the actual cause of the symptom MAY be difficult or impossible to accurately pinpoint.

    Consider individuals who respond adversely (for any number of reasons, in any number of ways) to medications, nutritional supplements, standard and / or specialized medical tests, etc.. And consider that oftentimes the adverse responses are not understood as adverse responses due to a lack of accurate information (for any number of reasons) by any or all of the individuals involved.

    These are just a few of my thoughts, condensed from decades of experience / research / advocating / etc. pertaining to how each individual is uniquely individual.

    I think about ALL the individuals involved in the experiments discussed in the original post, as well as the individuals involved in other experiments / “experiments” done for the greater good / “the greater good”.

    I think about the difference between Authority (God) / authority / “authority”.

    I think about the difference between submission (obedience) to Authority (God) / authority / “authority”.

    I think of individuals who THINK they know or have the truth.

    Even with the only-partial list of variables noted above, one can understand the complexity in determining the consequences from “the consequences”.

    • Finding Answers

      Adding on to my own comment (18TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 11:42 AM).

      I wrote: “Even with the only-partial list of variables noted above, one can understand the complexity in determining the consequences from “the consequences”.”

      ^That.

      To condense my comment in terms of how my mind works (and many other individuals’ minds work, though for (potentially) different reasons then mine).

      Not everyone learns the Bible solely by reading it (the Bible) themselves, hearing / reading / etc. exegetical sermons / documents / etc., (etc.).

      Not everyone can memorize / prooftext / “prooftext” Scripture.

      I learn through the leading of the Holy Spirit. He (the Holy Spirit) leads me to the specific information I need in His time (not mine, very big sigh 🙂 ).

      The Holy Spirit helps me connect the dots, convicting me when He (the Holy Spirit) tells me I have something I need to face (and repent, etc.).

      The Holy Spirit helps me connect the dots, telling me when I am being falsely condemned by other individuals / institutions / etc..

      When the Holy Spirit convicts me, I MAY face some temporal consequences. If, however, I repent (etc.), I do NOT face hell (in the eternal sense).

      When man (men or women) condemn me, I MAY face some temporal consequences / “consequences”, and some of those consequences / “consequences” can be likened to living in hell in the temporal (earthly) sense.

      The consequences / “consequences” of sin / “sin” depend on whether or not one chooses Life / life / “life” or death / “death”.

      Barb asked (13TH FEBRUARY 2020 – 1:49 AM) “Question 1. What is The Way?” and provided more details to answer her (Barb’s) own question.

      Providing my own (personal) details to my own (personal) understanding about Jesus Christ as The Way, The Truth, and The Life would NOT fit in a blog post. 🙂

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