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Terrifying Freedom, Liberating Service

Freedom—the word and the concept—has been showing up lately on social media, in court cases and congressional hearings, and randomly scattered through presidential tweets. Freedom has been showing up and getting tossed around as if its meaning is perfectly obvious or self-evident. I think it’s much more complex than most people imagine. I also think absolute freedom would be absolutely terrifying.

That is a rather odd thing to say in the United States of America, a country steeped in the language of liberty and individual freedoms as God-given rights. These words need and demand some context.

Especially in Black History month, we must be crystal clear that freedom from slavery is an unqualified good (tour guides on plantation museums still have to say this explicitly to tourists). Let us also be just as clear—as writer and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander keeps reminding us—slavery may have ended, but the racial caste system in this country has not. From Reconstruction to Jim Crow and mass incarceration, freedom is still only a dream for far too many in this country.

We might also ponder what “free” means in “free-market” capitalism when the whole system is chained to corporate shareholders demanding ever-higher profits and whether we ourselves have nearly as much “freedom” in this economic system as advertising executives would like us to believe we do.

The concept of freedom itself is indeed complex; but why would absolute freedom qualify as “terrifying”?

Just one reason among many: freedom can quickly turn into isolation and alienation, an experience of the world where the only reference point is the self. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I was hiking in area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains called the “Emigrant Wilderness,” in terrain similar to the kind that trapped the Donner Party back in the 1840s. I knew the area fairly well but wasn’t paying the kind of attention one should when hiking in a wilderness area; I got turned around, lost my sense of direction, had no map, and could see no trail. I was in a sense utterly free and also thoroughly terrified.

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Emigrant Wildnerness, Sierra Nevada Mountains

Putting this in more positive terms, we humans are creatures who thrive on attachment, on a sense of place and community to provide an anchor in an otherwise tumultuous world; creatures who flourish, not alone, but in networks of relational loyalties and responsibilities. And let me quickly add: such networks cannot be fully duplicated online; the realm of Internet engagement is called virtual reality for a reason. (Some would argue for an important distinction between social media and online communities, but I’m not entirely persuaded by this.)

I worry that the kind of freedom praised in certain segments of American society idealizes a life without any constraint or duty; this romanticized notion of an untamed life of liberty stands in stark contrast to genuine freedom, the kind that enables us to live within proper parameters where we come most fully alive—alive to the self that is in vital relation to others and the land we all share for life.

All of this came to mind as I reflected on what many Christians heard in Church this past weekend from Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible (Deut. 30:15-20), a book second only to Leviticus in the minds of many as an example of “legalistic religion,” or faithfulness as mere regulatory control, the Bible itself as the textual chains of constraint chafing against a glorious life of freedom.

It is truly unfortunate that the so-called “Old Testament” in the Bible has been so closely associated in the minds of many Christians with a rigid moralism and, even more sadly, with an image of an angry God. The Hebrew Bible actually offers some of the most tender images of God, the God whose heart breaks over injustice, who lures and woos the creation into loving relationship, who longs for intimacy and communion.

We might recall the context of that passage from Deuteronomy: God has liberated the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and guided them through the wilderness for many years, and has now brought them to the brink of the “promised land.” Right there, on that brink, God gives them the law through Moses.

Notice that freedom from their life of bondage in Egypt does not mean the freedom to do whatever they please; it means instead the freedom to be in covenant with God.

The stakes are high at this juncture in the story of ancient Israel; the people have a choice to make, the choice is between blessings and curses, between life and death. “Choose life” is the repeated exhortation in this passage,  where full, thriving, flourishing life is intertwined with a conscientious observance of the Torah, of the law—an observance that binds us to each other and, as this text also makes clear, to the land itself, apart from which we simply cannot live.

Absolute freedom can indeed be absolutely terrifying, in part because we cannot know who we are apart from the others with whom we share an identity, the ones who make us who we are. And that is exactly what ancient Israel’s covenant with God was meant to foster—we cannot be who we are alone.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., declared more than fifty years ago, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” It is no mere coincidence, then, that the rhetoric of absolute freedom is accompanied by an epidemic of loneliness and despair, increasingly self-medicated with opioids or suicide. Untethered from others, from community, from the land itself, we die.mlk_beloved_community

The stakes are just as high for the gospel writer called Matthew, from which Christians also heard on Sunday (Mt. 5:21-37). Perhaps more than the other three gospelers, Matthew will not let us separate Jesus from the religious observance of Israel.

As inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, especially as Martin Luther framed it, many Christians think of Christian faith as a contrast between “law” and “Gospel,” or between “works righteousness” and “grace.” These contrasts aren’t wrong, but a bit too stark. Matthew’s Jesus interrupts those refrains with a bracing refrain of his own, one that should give us pause: “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”

That’s a really important “but” and it is not a repudiation of the law. To the contrary, each time Matthew’s Jesus offers that pairing, observing Torah suddenly becomes more difficult not less. Paraphrasing Matthew’s challenge might sound like this:

  • Do not suppose you are free of social obligations simply because you haven’t killed anyone, as if that suffices to build community—embrace instead a much deeper duty, the kind that heals anger and forgives faults.
  • Do not suppose you are living in a healthy marriage just because you haven’t had sexual intercourse with anyone other than your spouse—recognize instead what lust actually is, the urge to own and control another human being like a commodity.
  • Do not suppose that justifying a divorce with the letter of the law releases you from caring about the welfare of your divorced partner—especially if that person is a woman in a patriarchal society.

Absolute freedom can be absolutely terrifying because we truly do belong to each other—not only contractually or legally but, as it were, organically, like branches that cannot live without the vine.

I think of this whenever I gather around the Eucharistic table. Just like the Exodus from Egypt, Eucharist is about salvation and also covenant; it’s about liberation for sure, and still also obligation; it is certainly about freedom, and therefore, it is also about belonging—to God and to each other—and not just the others we like, but the ones we don’t understand, who irritate us, even those who try to thwart on our own thriving. We all belong to each other.

Quite early in Christian traditions, in the first couple of centuries, theologians wrote about salvation in terms of freedom. What God accomplishes for us in Christ, they wrote, is freedom from sin, death, and the devil—not so that we can then do whatever we please without constraint, but rather so that we can be free to serve Christ as living members of his Body.

The contrast worth pursuing here is not between “law” and “gospel,” but between a terrifying freedom and a liberating service, the kind that frees us from competition, revenge, and the corrosive effects of hate—which I take as helpful synonyms for “sin, death, and the devil.”

Table fellowship becomes ever more important in a world of increasing fragmentation—tragically disguised as “freedom”—and violent forms of tribalism—mistaken embraced as “liberty.” Eucharist instead bears witness to the hope of genuine, life-giving freedom, the kind that unites us to God-in-Christ, binds us to each other, and secures our service to this precious Earth.

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The Lamb of God in the Beloved Community

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Many of us heard that familiar declaration in church yesterday; John the Baptist said it about Jesus, not once but twice in the appointed Gospel passage (John 1:29-42). Some Christians hear it every Sunday at the Eucharistic table.

It’s worth noting that John did not say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away your individual mistakes.” I don’t mean to discount our individual lives. I do mean to consider what this claim about Jesus might suggest about a concept of sin that was much more common in ancient Mediterranean societies than in our own day.

I’m referring to what modern Western people often have great difficulty in grasping—the notion of social, communal, or shared sinfulness. When John refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he does not mean just the sum total of our mistakes as individuals; he likely had in mind the sinfulness of the world.

This actually does matter for us as individuals, but for reasons that grate against the individualism of the modern West. The near-constant refrain about individual accountability in the contemporary Western world is usually made without any reference to the social systems that shape our individual choices, decisions, and actions.

All of us are deeply entangled in economic, cultural, and institutional structures that form us and train us to live and think in certain ways. These constitute our “world” of behaviors and interactions, and we can be grateful for how such a world instills patterns of civility, kindness, even “good manners” (remember those?).

That same “world” of social conditioning, however, often favors some at the expense of others. Those who benefit from these institutional structures rarely had any hand in creating them even while they reap a reward from them; these structures and patterns of relating actually predate all of us, like “original sin.” This is what social theorists try to notice concerning patriarchy, or heterosexism, or white supremacy.

What kind of “world,” then do we inhabit here in the United States? The poet Mary Oliver responded to that question by imagining what future generations might say about us, and wrote this (from her 2008 collection, Red Bird):

We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people) for dogs, for rivers. All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say…that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Martin Luther King, Jr., did not believe such things about American society in his own day—that its heart was small, and hard, and full of meanness. The fact that he did not believe it back then—in those days of whites-only lunch counters and police dogs and bombs that blew up little girls in Sunday school—that King did not apparently believe such a society was small of heart and mean actually takes my breath away.

Some would say he was simply foolish and naive; indeed, Malcolm X said as much about him. But Martin Luther King, Jr., was not foolish, or naïve, and he wasn’t optimistic about this society, either; but he was hopeful, which is often an occupational hazard among ministers of the Gospel.

A “hazard,” because hope does not always feel very comfortable, and it can make us say things and do things that can look quite silly or foolhardy to others.

Hope can make us insist, as King said, that all of us, both black and white, are “bound together in a single garment of destiny.”

Hope can inspire us to imagine, not the defeat of our enemies, but their conversion through love.

For King, the whole universe of God’s creation is moving toward a single goal, what he called the “Beloved Community.” King drew inspiration for that image, in part, from American philosopher Josiah Royce, who argued that “Church” is not optional but is actually an essential component of Christian faith. Why? Precisely because the problem Christianity tries to address is not how individuals get to Heaven, but whether genuine healing is possible for our deeply fragmented lives. Heaven certainly mattered for Royce, but we get there with others or not at all—which is exactly why the Apostle Paul turned so often to the image of the Body of Christ with its many diverse members.

This brings to mind King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was addressed directly and exactly to people like me—white, liberal ministers. I find myself inspired and moved when I listen to King wax eloquent on the Washington Mall about his “dream,” but I squirm when I read his letter from jail.

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After defying an injunction against protesting, King, with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (center) and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (left) were arrested and put in solitary confinement in a county jail in Birmingham, AL, on Good Friday 1963.

Those white, liberal ministers to whom King wrote were the ones who appreciated King’s work but wanted him to slow down, the ones who sympathized with “the race problem” but worried about what the solution would cost, the ones who condemned individual acts of racism but failed to understand how institutional systems made racism itself all but inevitable.

King had been exploring those themes for some time. In a speech that he delivered the year prior to writing that Birmingham letter, King outlined the “ethical demands of integration,” by which he meant much more than “desegregation.” King certainly applauded desegregating schools and places of business, but this was hardly sufficient for a path toward the “Beloved Community.” It is certainly useful that the process of desegregation can be legislated and regulated, but this just outsources justice to institutions whose hearts have not changed.

What’s needed instead, he argued, is integration—a social movement of the heart that leads toward the always unimaginable intimacy with people who are not just different from us but also those who have opposed our own thriving, even with violence.

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

The Lamb who not only forgives sin, not only atones for sin, but takes it away.

Would we recognize the world without its sins? Would we even find such a world desirable? Do we prefer a world with its familiar sins to how strange and disorienting the world would be without them?

To whom does the “we” refer in those questions? At the very least, it refers to well-meaning white liberals, like me. In that same gospel passage from yesterday, people like me heard a hint of what following Jesus entails—nothing less than an identity remade in a world transformed.

The hint came from what Jesus did when he first met Simon, Andrew’s brother. Jesus gave him a new name: Peter.

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“That Nothing May be Lost”: The Hope of Anglican Queerness in a Fragmented World

Anglican Christianity qualifies as an inherently queer religious tradition. I find this hopeful for a deeply fragmented world in a great deal of pain.

By “queer,” I mean more than welcoming spaces for LGBT people. I’m thinking especially of queer theory’s critique of binary oppositions and a persistent (often contested) rejection of purity in Anglican DNA. And I’m pondering these things under a ludicrously big ecclesial “tent” made from rainbow canvas.

Can Anglican queerness offer any hope for a world that seems to be unraveling? I think so, especially as polarized oppositions and purity codes confront us throughout all the world’s broken pieces.grace_cathedral_2

“Queer theory” has accrued nearly as many definitions as “Anglican” over the last thirty years. In that jumbled mix, I find two interrelated features of queer theorizing particularly helpful: 1) a posture of resistance to regulated regimes of the normal; and 2) a critique of binary oppositions. The interrelation of these features matters as much as each of the features. Regulated regimes of the normal, in other words, are perpetuated and policed by means of binary oppositions.

Consider, for example, the constant refrain (spoken as if self-evident) that men and women naturally occupy categorically distinct spheres. Men are public, dominant, and insertive; women are private, submissive, and penetrated.

If that sounds terribly old fashioned, we might review any number of today’s policy initiatives, legislative agendas, or just town hall meetings and PTA gatherings—or the flood of #MeToo moments and the still (annoyingly) ubiquitous question about which of the two men in a gay relationship plays the “woman’s part” (i.e., the passive and dominated one). These regulated regimes of the normal, queer theorists say, are policed by means of the binary gender system.

Queer theory’s exposure and critique of these dynamics frames the messy history of Anglican Christianity. Very little seems “normal” about a church that refuses to land in a clearly defined ecclesial space. The sixteenth century English Reformation apparently wanted to have its scones and eat them too, embracing a Catholic heritage with Protestant verve.

Anglican polity swerves toward centralized decrees (where exactly is our English Vatican?) only to find congregational objections yanking us back toward compromises and local “exceptions.” Anglican prayer books are rooted in Catholic rites but always modulated with Protestant rebuttals. Episcopalians recently celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15th without ever mentioning, directly, the Assumption.

These peculiar Anglican spaces emerge from a persistent (and usually vexing) rejection of binary options: we are neither Catholic nor Protestant and still live somehow as both.

An invigorating and challenging posture sits at the heart of these religiously messy traditions: resisting puritanism. The emergent Church of England, we might recall, was rocked at its founding by Puritans (the ones who boarded the Mayflower and landed in “Massachusetts”), who insisted on “purifying” the church of all its papal remnants. These pious colonists longed to “drain the swamp.”

Right there, queer theory’s unrelenting interrogation of regulated normality meets deep Anglican commitments. The result is a catalyzing and healing vision for today’s seemingly intractable contestations and severely wounded communities. I mean this: the queerly Anglican refusal to be pure. We ourselves live in the “swamp.”

This queerness matters in more ways than even most Anglicans usually surmise. I’m thinking of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who fueled a world-changing socio-political movement with an image of the Beloved Community. The community he envisioned as beloved does not consist of people who agree with each other about everything, nor of people who look or act the same, nor of people who want to socialize with each other at cocktails parties—no, a truly beloved community brings a shockingly diverse collection of people together because of their shared destiny.

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The destiny we share as humans on a planet with many other creatures of God cannot be a “regulated normalcy,” nor a neatly classified society divided into distinct camps and parties, nor a singular community defined by the purity of its ideology or its membership. King’s insistence on a shared destiny runs far deeper—and therefore more challenging and upsetting and lifegiving—than conformity to rubrics or legislative agendas or parsed with skin color or economic class or the gender of a spouse.

That’s why, in part, I persist in casting my lot with Anglican Christianity. Not because it defines me in opposition to other Christians, much less to other humans or other animals, but because its queer sensibilities break me open to find love and purpose among all those many “others,” no purity required.

Indeed, no purity actually possible—we are all untidy, messy, conflicted, and multiple. Queer theorists insist on this and I encountered it first by plunging into Anglican traditions, which seem perpetually on the brink of falling apart for their whacky and wonderful multiplicity.

The “big tent” of Anglican Christianity is not a perfect space; it is deeply flawed in many respects. That’s another reason why I pitch my own little tent under its rainbow canvas. I can’t manage to be pure; no one can. Even when some of my fellow Anglicans insist we should be, the attempts always fizzle, thankfully. (If purity is your standard, you might want to avoid the Gospels and stay away from church conventions.)

Many years ago, when I worried and fretted over my own religious and sexual purity (one because of the other) a seminary professor said, “we’re not saved by being right; we’re saved by grace.” That’s not an excuse for either doctrinal sloppiness or moral laxity; but it is a reason for generosity and hospitality. That just might be a path toward healing, toward a shared destiny, toward—dare I say—salvation.

American society today faces a severe threat to one of its founding suppositions: e pluribus unum (out of many, one). Christians face this quandary constantly, not least by wondering what in the world to do with John’s Jesus when he prays that we all “might be one” (was even his prayer ineffectual?) or how to mark the week of “Prayer for Christian Unity” every January without blushing and mumbling platitudes.

Queer theorists urge us to suppose that “oneness” has nothing to do with uniformity; even more, that uniformity is the great enemy of a flourishing community. As I struggle with all of this, I’m grateful for the Anglican witness to multiple answers to key questions, even when we’re troubled by our own responses.

Oddly, queerly, I return to the Apostle Paul in those moments of consternation. I have grown to love that vexing pioneer of Christian faith and his convoluted self, the one who insisted that the “body of Christ” consists of many diverse members. That conflicted champion of incorporating Gentiles into a Jewish movement, that “least among the apostles” who, like all of us, made claims he himself had trouble putting into practice.

A world fragmented by zero-sum games of planetary proportions is eager and desperate for some reassurance that there is indeed a destiny of thriving life that all of us—quite improbably, quite queerly—share.

Many Christians heard a version of this hope for a month of Sundays this summer as the lectionary led us through the sixth chapter of John’s account of the Gospel. After feeding a multitude of people, Jesus says this: “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost” (6:12).

John’s Jesus queerly spoke what Dr. King queerly tried to live, and this is still our queer hope today: a shared destiny.

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Beloved Community and the Irrevocable Deed

“How good and pleasant it is,” declared the psalmist, “when kindred live together in unity.”

Many Christians recited that verse from Psalm 133 during Sunday worship yesterday. What a striking contrast between reciting what is “good and pleasant” and recalling Charlottesville, Virginia descending into chaos and violence, hearing with dismay the hate-filled speech, lamenting a country deeply fragmented.

Like many others, I long for just the right words, the most effective rhetorical posture, the finely-tuned strategy – anything at all to fix this broken society.

I pondered this as I sat and prayed with the other biblical texts for yesterday’s liturgy – the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, Paul writing about Jews in a letter to Christians in the heart of the Roman Empire, the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. These texts reminded me how deeply embedded we are in systems far larger than ourselves, systems that divide and fragment us with cycles of injury and vengeance, systems that remain invulnerable to reason, and logic, or just a “better argument.”

We are not dealing with mere partisanship here or ideological differences, as if all we need are persuasive facts to correct wrong-headed ideas.

Cornel West was among a line of clergy in Charlottesville who stood arm-in-arm to face a phalanx of white nationalist demonstrators. West is no newcomer to this work and witness; he’s been around the racism block many, many times. West described staring into the eyes of those demonstrators and noted: “I’ve never seen that kind of hatred in my life.”west_charlottesville

What has recently become more directly visible, and its expressions more emboldened, has deep and stubborn roots. Festering in this country’s past is not only the institution of slavery but the construction of race itself as the means to justify and perpetuate the superiority of white people over all others. This creates a social system that cannot be uprooted or dismantled by fiat, much less by street brawls.

The Emancipation Proclamation may have ended slavery as an institution, but it did not dispel the social system or its enduring legacy. Michelle Alexander reminds us how that system perpetuates itself in ever new guises – at first as “Reconstruction,” then “Jim Crow,” and today, in the “mass incarceration” of young men of color.

It’s tempting, in other words, to isolate problematic individuals – whether as neo-Nazis or white nationalists – and to suppose that rebuking them or arresting them or punishing them will solve the problem. But we are not dealing with a few bad apples in the barrel; the barrel itself is the problem. Or as a poet-activist recently proposed, white supremacy “is not a shark; it’s the water.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King understood the deeply spiritual character of this system of injustice and its hateful expressions, for which only a deeply spiritual response will suffice. This insight shaped the six principles of nonviolence that guided his life and work.

Principle #3, for example, urges us to remember that we are seeking to defeat injustice, not people. “Evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.”

How easy it is to forget this in the heat of confrontation and conflict, yet so vital to remember: the hate Cornel West encountered is just as soul crushing and corrosive for the hater as it is for the targets of their hate.

King believed that the only meaningful and lasting solution is for all of us, together, to create and sustain what he called the “Beloved Community.”

It’s worth pausing to reflect on what King meant by this, which is certainly much more than a social club. That galvanizing image first appeared in the work of Josiah Royce, a late nineteenth-century philosopher of religion.

For Royce, the communal bonds we share with each other, the ones that make us human together, are torn apart by treachery. Royce called that moment of betrayal “the irrevocable deed.” He chose that language carefully, to underscore the severity of treachery and its debilitating legacy, how it refuses to dissipate just by ignoring it or pretending it never happened. Apologies alone will not suffice to heal the rupture of betrayal; the deed still stands as irrevocable.

Treachery, Royce argued, demands atonement – for both the betrayed and the betrayer. This will mean creating something new, not in spite of that irrevocable deed but because of it. This new thing Royce described as the Beloved Community.

Royce turned often to the story of Joseph in Genesis, the climax of which was appointed for yesterday’s worship (Gen. 45:1-15). Recall how the story began: out of envy, Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him and he was sold as a slave into the house of Pharaoh.  Over time, Joseph becomes a trusted servant and even a “lord of Egypt.” And this: his ability to interpret dreams saves the whole land from a terrible famine.

Among those he saves, of course, are members of his own family, including his treacherous brothers. The storyteller does not give us a “forgive and forget” moment but an extended family reunion in which Joseph insisted that his brothers remember what they did to him. He insists on this, not for vengeance or retribution but to build something new and hopeful from their shared memory – the essence, Royce proposed, of “atonement.”

hands_multiracialGenuine community, Royce argued, the Beloved Community, emerges from a shared memory of betrayal and a shared hope for new life.

Countless “irrevocable deeds” litter our past, some festering like an open wound, others leaving only traces of a scar. What transpired in Charlottesville is but the latest manifestation of what Jim Wallis calls “American’s original sin” – racism. Unless and until we tell that story truthfully, remember it together courageously and humbly, the irrevocable deeds of white supremacy remain un-atoned.

Royce would argue that Christians already know what that kind of truth-telling looks like, or have at least a hint of its rhythms whenever we gather at the Eucharistic Table. At that Table, through a shared memory and a shared hope, the same God who made something good from the evil done to Joseph makes something good from us – the Body of Christ.

In a world torn apart by hate and violence, what Christians do at the Eucharistic Table matters. The Table matters; I have to believe this. At the Table we cease to be fragments – divided by race and nationality, split apart by color and gender, betrayed by envy and sold into the slavery of countless cycles of injury and vengeance – at the Table we are knit together into a single body, bound together by love and grace. This, at the very least, is our hope.

Learning to tell the truth in and with love at the Table will not solve our resilient divisions; but I am convinced it’s the only path on which a graceful solution will appear.

Martin Luther King, Jr., urged us along that path with familiar words that never grow old:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

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