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Spring 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 1 · pp. 76–98 

The Face of Christ in the Face of Nature: A Conversation with Jean Vanier, Socrates, James Cone, and Charles Darwin

Justin Neufeld

The Boy in the Moon is Ian Brown’s story of his struggle to comprehend both his son Walker and himself. Walker suffers from cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disorder affecting just over a hundred people worldwide. Its most prominent symptoms are murmurs and malformations of the heart, facial dysmorphia, and skin irregularities. Alongside these are the less immediately detectable but the more existentially demanding symptoms of the syndrome. At thirteen, Walker is somewhere between one and three years old mentally. He does not speak, he cannot manage the toilet and he can no longer eat without a tube, he sleeps fitfully and briefly, he suffers seizures, and he does not go for long without crying and smashing his ears without discernable reason. The book has the title it does because the experience of looking at Walker, his father says, has much in common with spying the man in the moon. “Sometimes watching Walker is like looking at the moon: you see the face of the man in the moon, yet you know there’s actually no man there. But if Walker is so insubstantial, why does he feel so important? What is he trying to show me? All I really want to know is what goes on inside his off-shaped head, {77} in his jumped-up heart. But every time I ask, he somehow persuades me to look in to my own.” 1

The goal is to meet death without falling into spiritual death, the latter being a condition that is, in its very essence, adversarial towards living nakedly before any Power other than oneself.

Trying to answer these questions leads Brown in two seemingly irreconcilable directions, first to the laboratories of geneticists across Canada and the United States and then to L’Arche communities in Montreal and France. In the words of one geneticist Brown speaks with, Walker is a “deleterious effect” of nature. The genetic mutation that is the source of Walker’s difficulties is a mutation that is compatible with life, but marginally so, for without the support of parents, family, and a broad array of medical expertise, social infrastructure, and advanced technology, Walker could not live. “The scientific definition of evolutionary success, of a successful random mutation, is one that allows the organism to survive and reproduce. Nature alone would not have allowed my son to survive.” 2

The conclusion Brown reaches from his venture into genetic analysis is an observation about the paradoxical nature of scientific description. While Walker is silent, science is prolix in its description of him. New terms, Brown observes, had been invented for this new creation: apoptosis; atrial; autosomal; autosomal dominant—these “a’s” just the tip of an elaborate scientific account reaching for comprehensiveness. The terms were both needful and comforting. “Everything about Walker was complicated by something else, and there were many days when I appreciated that, when it deepened him, and gave me more to think about.” 3 And yet this comprehensiveness only made more striking what was left out of account, namely Walker himself. This language could not comprehend him, and this was not a function of the state of current research which time, money, and personnel could fix. It was a function of the scientific approach itself. Its particular observational precision comes through its bracketing of the lived experience of Walker and those around him. “[T]o a laboratory geneticist who studied CFC as a genetic disorder, the syndrome was always only that: a disorder, an unfixable spelling mistake in the grammar of humanness. I understood that stance, and also hated it. . . . In a genetics lab, Walker would always be a deleterious effect of nature and evolution, and little more.” 4

This dispiriting encounter with this particular vacancy of scientific description leads Brown to search out other perspectives. He finds a compelling perspective in L’Arche communities in Montreal and France. While in France, Brown is able to meet Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. In the course of their conversations, Brown finds himself sharing that the best moments he has with Walker are in the bath: “when I felt out of sorts, when nothing helped, I could feel better if I gave Walker a bath, because it made him feel better too.” Vanier surprises Brown by saying the reason Brown enjoys these moments is that in them he is embracing his own disability, {78} by which Vanier means Brown’s dependency, his contingency, his vulnerability, and his need of others. Most of all, his death. “[A]ccepting people with disabilities is some way of accepting one’s own death.”

“You see?” Vanier said. “You are bathing your own handicap. . . . We all know we’re going to die. Some of us will die at the age of ten. Some of us will die at eighty-five. We begin in fragility, we grow up, we are fragile and strong at the same time, and then we go into the process of weakening. So the whole question of the human process is how to integrate strength and weakness. You talk about your vulnerability with Walker. Something happened to you, which people who haven’t lived what you’ve lived will never be able fully to understand—you have been able to become human by accepting your own vulnerability.” 5

According to Vanier, L’Arche communities begin and end from the place of human weakness. “We say to people, I need your help. And then you create community. And that’s what happened here. . . . In a way, that’s all that L’Arche is: it’s a village where we meet each other. We celebrate life. And that’s what these people do. They celebrate around the weak. When you’re strong, the way you celebrate is with whisky.” 6

Brown is inspired by his visit with Vanier and the L’Arche communities. He asserts with greater confidence Walker’s value. Earlier he had given voice to his wife Johanna’s lament that for many, Walker’s value is instrumental only: he is a reminder to count your blessings, to be contented, to feel better about yourself. This was an intolerable reduction of their son, maneuvering him into the complementary role of teaching those at the center—still convinced of the goodness of strength unacquainted with dependency and vulnerability—not to be incautious in counting themselves unlucky. Brown’s conversations with Vanier and his time spent in L’Arche communities provoke him to a very different perspective on his son’s value. The following concludes the chapters recording this time in Brown’s life.

[Y]ou can perhaps forgive me for thinking, some days, that Walker has a purpose in our evolutionary project, that he is something more than an unsuccessful attempt at mutation and variation. For thinking, probably vainly, that if his example is noted and copied and “selected,” he might be one (very small) step towards the evolution of a more varied and resilient ethical sense in a few members of the human species. The purpose of intellectually disabled people like Walker might be to free us from the stark emptiness of the survival of the fittest. 7 {79}

Ultimately, however, Brown does not entirely embrace Vanier’s perspective. He tells us that, according to Vanier, the severely handicapped ask two questions: Do you consider me human? Do you love me? Our answers to these questions evolve the more we meet them. We begin in fear, move through pity, advance to help and respect, “until finally we experience ‘wonderment and thanksgiving,’ and ‘discover that, by becoming close to disabled people and entering an authentic relationship with them, they transform us.’ ” 8 The highest stage is when “ ‘we see the face of God within the disabled. Their presence is a sign of God, who has chosen ‘the foolish in order to confound the strong, the proud and the so-called wise of our world.’ And so those we see as weak or marginalized are, in fact, the most worthy and powerful among us: they bring us closer to God.’ ” 9 Brown tells us that he does not believe in Vanier’s God, though he wishes he could, and he does not see the face of the Almighty in Walker. Instead, very near to the close of the book, Brown shifts the reader’s attention to Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and the praise of human sociality we find within its pages. Darwin suggests that it was our very weakness that favored the selection of love and sympathy, qualities responsible more than any other for humanity’s social and intellectual achievements, leading Brown to write: “There is no planning with this boy. I go where he goes. He may be a deleterious effect of evolution as far as a geneticist is concerned, but he has few peers as a route to developing what Darwin himself . . . called the evolutionary advantages of ‘the social instincts . . . love, and the distinct emotion of sympathy.’ ” 10


The purpose of this essay is to argue that there is more continuity between Vanier and Darwin than Brown’s transition from one to the other suggests. One of the points of conflict thought to exist between Christian and secular thought concerns the meaning and significance of death. The apostle Paul declares that death is the wage of sin (Romans 6:23), from which many have concluded that death is the fruit reaped by sin having its way with us after we decided to go our own way before God. Conversely, Charles Darwin declares that death is one of the engines of life. Without reproduction and death, species could not adjust to changing abiotic and biotic environments, and the creative pressure that is the source of life’s diversity and complexity is the direct consequence of reproduction and death together. If we can ignore for the moment many possible questions and qualifications, the one perspective sees death as an evil and its undoing a grace whereas the other sees death as a grace and its loss a descent into terminal inflexibility. {80}

Those holding the perspective that death is an enemy will be prone to see Walker’s affliction as part of the wage that Sin pays, its senselessness made manifest in Walker’s body. This position, however, has difficulties, one of which is that it is hard to maintain in the face of the evidence for the truth of Darwin’s presentation of death’s necessity and goodness, its generative role in life, which includes its role in combating the limitations we grieve and fear in Walker. Second, this position tends to underwrite these griefs and fears as it struggles to learn the lessons both Brown and Vanier teach concerning the intrinsic value of Walker since it makes strength, capacity, and independence normative.

Those holding the perspective that death is needful and generative have a different set of difficulties, difficulties perhaps best expressed by Darwin himself. Brown misleads the reader when he turns to The Descent of Man as an alternative to the geneticist’s perspective and Vanier’s perspective—losing the callousness of the former and the esoteric religiosity of the latter—for Darwin does not provide an entirely comfortable home for the social instincts of love and sympathy. It is to articulating the tensions of Darwin’s perspective on human sociality that we need to turn.

The elements of Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection are elegantly simple. The first is the fact of variation. Individual organisms of the same species are different from each other in terms of how they look and function, both on the outside and the inside. Species do not breed true, absolutely speaking. Second, all organisms produce more offspring than are required to replace them. If all of these offspring survived, they would overwhelm the planet, filling it many times over. “Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possible survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life.” 11 Third, at least some of the individual variation is heritable, transmitted from parent to offspring. Fourth—bringing the previous three together—these minor variations can make a significant difference in the struggle for existence, leading some organisms to survive and reproduce and others to reproductive failure and death. Whereas the watchful eye and guiding hand of the human supervises the development of domestic breeds, there is no equivalent agent in nature. The struggle for existence is all that is needed. It is the omnipresent and omnipotent element that shapes organisms for life. “It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.” 12 {81}

The challenge before anyone who wants to present Darwin as a resource for defending the intrinsic, non-instrumental value of persons with disabilities arises from this notion of the struggle for existence. From its perspective, Walker has very little to offer. As an organism (somewhat) compatible with life, he can add a modest intensification to the struggle for existence and thereby indirectly contribute to the selection of better adapted organisms. But he has no beneficial variation of his own to provide. After he offers his life he offers his death, giving way for a (hopefully) more intense struggle for existence among organisms that are more compatible with life. “The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.” 13 If this description of nature sounds dispiriting, which it seems to have sounded even for Darwin, he offers us this wistful consolation: “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” 14

The bearing these comments have on the estimation of the life of Walker Brown should be coming into focus. Darwin accompanies us here as well, drawing the conclusions we might fear to voice.

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. . . .

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. {82} We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely that the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage, though this is more to be hoped for than expected. 15

The pathos of these sentences is palpable as they outline a multi-level tragedy. First, the process of natural selection has unwittingly acted against itself. Having given birth to the social instincts and their achievements these same social instincts now betray the conditions that made for them. More specifically, the social instincts that served the survival of humans and their primate ancestors now lead us to preserve the weak in mind and body, as a result not only are the environmental pressures that led to our intellectual and social development relaxed but society is also weakened from the inside as those least equipped for the struggle for existence are allowed to reproduce. Second, the felt-goodness of community and sympathy deceives for before, alongside, and beyond the experience of someone like Vanier lies the “perspective” of natural selection, which offers different counsel concerning what we should desire, love, fear, and grieve concerning the claims of others upon us. Darwin is candid that these tensions cannot be reconciled, only suffered. And yet, it is also very difficult not to conclude that Darwin would find our current ability to detect and eliminate the disabled before birth an achievement, a kind of reconciliation of our sympathetic feelings with the objective demands of good husbandry. Our medical “advances” in pre-natal testing seem to allow us to approach what Darwin seems to see as our greatest good: a community of physically and intellectually gifted persons that respond with sympathetic concern to each other’s needs—if and when they arise.

As I said above, the purpose of this essay is to argue that there is continuity between the perspective of Vanier and the perspective of Darwin. In saying this I am not suggesting, like Brown, that Darwin helps us preserve what is best in Vanier’s perspective without the strange identification of the severely handicapped with Christ. Rather, I am suggesting exactly the opposite—that Darwin is closer to the strange identification Vanier makes between the face of Walker and the face of Christ. Obviously, making such a claim requires a significant re-reading of the evolution of species by means of natural selection, specifically the struggle for existence. We will get to that. But in order to get there, we first need to challenge the idea that death is an evil, the offspring of the sin of disobedience. The reasons for this challenge are those mentioned above. The evidence for the presence of death prior to the evolutionary appearance of humans is overwhelming, included {83} in which is evidence for death’s necessity and goodness. In addition, much theological discussion of death shows an unwillingness to learn the lessons about weakness and vulnerability that Vanier and Brown are trying to communicate. This challenge will proceed through two stories, each of which has a tree of life that is also a tree of death.


The Apology is Plato’s account of his teacher Socrates’s trial and conviction on charges of corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods in whom the city believes. The majority of the dialogue is devoted to Socrates’s account of the cause of the Athenians’ hostility towards him, a hostility that has been accumulating over the years and which has resulted in this charge. The root of the cause is Socrates’s misfortune in receiving a message from the oracle at Delphi, the mouthpiece of the god Apollo. Socrates did not visit the oracle himself, but he did come to hear one of its prophecies and it bore directly on him. The prophecy was this, that he was the wisest of all men. This was deeply troubling for Socrates because, on the one hand, he was convinced that he was not wise at all; on the other hand, he was equally convinced that the god does not lie. And so this prophecy was a confounding burden. In the end, Socrates resolved that though it was impossible for the god to lie perhaps it was not impossible for the god to be mistaken. Accordingly, he sought out a citizen with a reputation for great wisdom so he could prove the oracle incorrect and shed its weight.

However, he had no such luck. When Socrates spoke with this supposed wise man he was disappointed to discover that he was not wise at all. Quickly, he repeated the process. He sought out other persons with a reputation for wisdom and investigated them. Yet in each case he found the same thing: they were not wise at all. More specifically, while he found some wise in a few things, he also found that because of their wisdom in one area these persons assumed themselves wise in the greatest things. At this point, a transformation took place in Socrates. He began to experience the oracle’s prophecy less as a burdensome riddle and more as a command. He moved from wanting to vindicate his judgment of his wisdom to wanting to vindicate the god’s judgment of the Athenians’ wisdom, and so he began going around Athens showing those who thought themselves wise that they weren’t wise at all.

To many readers Socrates comes across as hectoring and petty, which is fitting if we think Socrates is asking his listeners for an inventory of what they think they know and then asking them to defend these beliefs with adequate reasons. But this is not the character of Socrates’s concern for truth. He is asking about his listener’s comportment towards the truth, how they {84} orient themselves to it subjectively, existentially. An answer to this question cannot be reached by numbering and evaluating beliefs. For Socrates, the essential part is not that people do not know or are wrong about what they think they know. There is nothing puzzling here. The essential part is that people are ignorant yet pretend otherwise or hide this ignorance from themselves. This is a puzzle worth contemplating. And the answer Socrates gives to this puzzle is that people have for themselves a standard of living other than the truth, namely, reputation, honor, and wealth. Their measures are competence, control, mastery, power, and acclaim. They believe they are not unless they are, or have or are seen to have, these things, and so we have truth at war with what we love instead of the truth, namely, ourselves. Persons may believe many true things in the course of adhering to these standards, yet they remain essentially polemical to the truth even as they give voice to them. The test for Socrates’s interlocutors is not whether they have many noble ideas and many good reasons to support them. The test is whether they have something “more important” they “have to get back to” after Socrates is done questioning them.

Socrates is therefore a scandal to the Athenians since, in his prophetic vocation, he dogmatically asserts that any inconsistency in one’s subjective orientation to the truth in order to gain elsewhere, whether on the battlefield, in the marketplace, or in the courts, is an incalculable loss. You may gain victory, money, reputation or time, but never yourself or the truth. Ultimately, there is only one noble thing, not many: that is the goodness of being a slave to the truth, forever indebted to it. It is for this reason that Socrates, undoubtedly “smart,” refuses to count himself wise, much to the great irritation of his bewildered listeners. He offers this assessment of the purpose of the oracle:

People say that I am a “wise man.” For the bystanders always think that I am wise myself in any matter wherein I refute another. But, gentlemen, I believe that the god is really wise, and that by this oracle he meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing. I do not think that he meant that Socrates was wise. He only made use of my name, and took me as an example, as though he would say to men, “He among you is the wisest who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is really worth nothing at all.” 16

Now, this bears on the concerns of this essay in the following way. At one point, Socrates anticipates the thoughts of those who are judging him. He imagines them thinking this: “Look at what your service to this prophecy has gained you! You are an old man. Over seventy. You live in poverty. And now you are about to be put to death by your fellow citizens, leaving your children fatherless. Are you not ashamed, Socrates?! The only {85} dividend that your service to the oracle has paid is death!” His response is this: “To fear death, my friends, is to think ourselves wise without really being wise, for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For no one knows whether death may not be the greatest good that can happen to man. But men fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of all evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?” 17 What Socrates’s response shows us is that the question “aren’t you ashamed?” hinges on the assumption that dying is shameful, that it is evil. But we do not know this. So, out of a fear of a supposed evil I commit genuine evil, namely, I suppose I know what I do not know and so betray both myself and the truth together. But this is not all, for death is not just one “fact” or “issue” among others about which we might pretend knowledge. When we assume that death is an evil, we will say and do (nearly) anything to avoid it, and so this assumption becomes the foundation and axis of “knowledge,” our words and actions orbiting around and reinforcing it. Not only that, assuming death is an evil we then strive to be invulnerable in word and deed, despising those who are vulnerable and lead us into vulnerability. It is the original sin. It is the originating sin.

Thus Socrates shows his listeners that human sociality is interpreted through and governed by death. We see ourselves besieged by this capricious, indifferent force, which holds under threat all we hold dear. As a result, our sociality becomes the search for strength, certainty, mastery, security, and celebrity and the rejection of weakness, uncertainty, incompetence, vulnerability, and invisibility. Yet that is not all Socrates shows his listeners. He also shows that death is understood this way because this is the way our sociality is experienced. Death is feared—as exposure, nakedness, rejection, and isolation—because this is what we most fear among each other: to be on the outside, unacknowledged, alone, unseen. And this fear is present as a result of our relationship to the truth. If we are at odds with the truth, we will always fear death and each other. Striving to be self-possessed, death appears as the nightmare of self-dispossession. Whereas acknowledging our ignorance and our nothingness before the truth strips us of anything death, or anyone else, has the power to take away. We now have time: time for uncertainty, time for weakness, time for each other. This means we need to reformulate the final sentences of the previous paragraph. The fear of death is not the original/originating sin without qualification. The fear of death comes into existence in the abandonment of truth. Or rather, the fear of death comes into being in the movement from a relationship of seeing (contemplation) to a relationship of eating (possessing) with respect to the truth. {86}

Socrates was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. This is the “tree of death” that I referred to above. Yet for Socrates it was a tree of life. Only for his accusers and judges was it a tree of death.

Both in a lawsuit and in war, there are some things which neither I nor any other man may do in order to escape from death. In battle, a man often sees that he may at least escape from death by throwing down his arms and falling on his knees before the pursuer to beg for his life. And there are many other ways of avoiding death in every danger if a man is willing to say and to do anything. But, my friends, I think that it is a much harder thing to escape from wickedness than from death, for wickedness is swifter than death. And now I, who am old and slow, have been overtaken by the swifter pursuer—wickedness. And now I shall go away, sentenced by you to death; they will go away, sentenced by truth to wickedness and injustice. And I abide by this award as well as they. Perhaps it was right for these things to be so. I think that they are fairly balanced. 18


Let us now draw connections between Socrates, Darwin, and Vanier.

The first connection to draw is between Socrates and Darwin concerning death. As noted earlier, for Darwin death is not an evil but a good. Without death and the need for reproduction, organisms would be unable to track changing biotic and abiotic environments. Moreover, reproduction and death together are the source of the earth’s biological diversity and complexity. Nothing from Socrates leads us to object to this framework for comprehending death. More than that, Socrates reminds us of two important theological truths. The first is that we must fear God and the truth more than death. The Athenians Socrates spoke to were ignorant of what is truly horrifying, which is estrangement of the spirit from the truth. However, this ignorance of the truly horrifying did not save them from shuddering and shrinking—no, they shuddered and shrunk from the not truly horrifying: physical death. 19 Socrates’s vocation was to introduce them to a greater danger, namely, the danger of spiritual death. The second truth Socrates helps to remind us of is that death is natural for humans insofar as they are creatures. No creature is a law to itself; no creature is the life that it has. Every organism that comes into being necessarily goes out of being unless a Power intervenes to give it life that is not its own. From this perspective, to resist or resent death is to resist and resent our creatureliness. Finally, we can connect these points in the following ways: perhaps it is the case that fearing what is truly fearful—separating ourselves from the truth—is, in {87} some elemental fashion, essential to being available to the intervention of this Power that is not our own; and perhaps it is the case that undergoing rather than evading physical death is an essential and inescapable part of fearing what is truly fearful.

The second connection to draw is between Socrates and Vanier concerning disability. In The Boy in the Moon Brown shares that he and Walker worked out a rudimentary system of communication. Brown would click and sometimes Walker would recognize the clicks and respond in kind. Vanier leaps on this disclosure. “ ‘He’s clicking, and you’re clicking, and I call that communion,’ Vanier said. ‘You’re vulnerable to him, he’s vulnerable to you. You’re not doing something for him. You’re just with him. Clicking. I like that expression. So when you’re with Walker and you’re clicking, you’re grateful for one another. You can imagine how grateful he is, because this is Dad, looking at him. And you’re grateful, because he’s looking at you, the child within you. Not looking at you as somebody who’s written the best something or other. He’s looking at you as you really are in the depths of your being.’ ” 20

I think it is crucial to understand Socrates’s communication with the Athenians in a likewise manner. Of course, Socrates is extremely gifted with words, and his listeners are often overwhelmed with the mix of precision, rigor, lightness, and irony in his speech, leading them either to find him abrasive, cold, and insincere or an icon of power worthy of imitation. Both responses are a disappointment for Socrates, for he is pursuing a personal encounter. He is not asking his listeners for what they know; he is asking them for themselves. He is not asking for critical acumen; he is asking for an encounter in the truth. I hope this allows us to see that Socrates erodes barriers between the “abled” and the “disabled” by stripping away conventional understandings of ability. The detail and subtlety of our language, art, governance, and commerce can just as easily be a mark of our estrangement from the truth as an indication of our enslavement to it. Surfaces deceive: beneath our verbal (and other) powers we remain “[r]etarded, incapable of language,” 21 because we are afraid of what others might think, afraid of not being in control, afraid of losing face, and this because we have set ourselves in opposition to the truth. In other words, persons with and persons without disabilities have a common vocation that cuts across differences in physical and intellectual ability. These natural endowments too must be chained to the truth. Thus Socrates establishes a communion of persons who “click” because, freed of the fear of death, they are free to be with one another in the bond of their common humanity: young or old, citizen or stranger, with disabilities or without. Not only that, Socrates points us to how the severely handicapped may be the most “Socratic” of all citizens. Walker and those Brown met on his visits to L’Arche do not choose themselves over remaining open to truth that is not theirs to {88} possess; they do not hold the future hostage because they do not believe they have claims everywhere.


James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree uses the lynching tree to help us understand Jesus’ cross. By the “lynching tree” Cone is referring to the practice of white mobs killing African-American men, women, and children—often, but not always, by hanging them from a tree. This was a widespread practice from the time of the American Civil War until the 1950s. In its heyday, Cone writes, the lynching of black Americans was no secret. Though illegal it was a public spectacle, often announced in advance in newspapers and over radio. Postcards were frequently made of the event so whites could share their experience with friends and relatives.

What Cone wants us to see is how these killings throw light on the experience of Jesus. Not only did he suffer in his body as these black men and women suffered but he also suffered in the spirit as they suffered. He too was confronted by ruling powers and mobs who were seduced by power and privilege and who despised weakness and vulnerability. He too was confronted by those who were on the inside, who were confident of their belonging and their “somethingness.” Cone says that in the United States, the clearest image of the crucified Christ is the figure of an innocent black victim, dangling from a lynching tree. “In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.” 22

But this is not the only connection Cone makes between the cross and the lynching tree. The other connection comes from the other side, when we ask what God’s answer is to black suffering on the lynching tree. Amazingly, God’s answer, Cone says, is the lynching tree. God’s answer is that we lay down our somethingness, renounce our desire for vindication, relinquish our thirst for retributive justice, and follow Jesus, the Jesus who refused to give us a domesticated god that would justify us on the terms of our choosing. Cone’s chapter on Martin Luther King Jr. serves this point: “King saw in Jesus’ unmerited suffering on the cross God’s answer to black suffering on the lynching tree. . . . In his ‘Eulogy for the Martyred Children,’ King said that ‘they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.’ He contended that their ‘innocent blood’ could ‘serve as a redemptive force’ to transform ‘our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood.’ ” 23 {89}

Here again, therefore, we find a tree of death that is also a tree of life. Cone’s claim is that for black Americans the lynching tree could become a tree of life once it was seen that Jesus shared its shame and its violence, that he was afflicted in body and spirit on his own tree, brutalized physically and abandoned socially. Though they were alone before a jeering mob, Jesus did not despise black men and women but instead shared their humiliation and scorn. Not only that, Jesus in his love had the tenderness and the temerity to command black Americans, in the midst of their physical and social suffering, to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, thus saving them from the spiritual death belonging to hopelessness, resentment, and anger. Cone writes: “As King saw it, the most powerful religious authority for black Christians was Jesus Christ, and Jesus’ teachings on love and nonviolence became his primary focus: ‘Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.” This is what we must live by.’ ” 24

Much more deserves to be said about Cone’s work, yet it will need to be left there. Let us now draw some connections between Cone, Darwin, and Vanier.

The first connection to draw is between Cone and Darwin concerning death. Please recall once again the place of death in Darwin’s understanding of evolution by natural selection. Nothing from Cone leads us to object to this framework for comprehending death. Note the congruence between Socrates and King in this passage from The Cross and the Lynching Tree: “The cross of Jesus is the key to King’s willingness to sacrifice his life, not only for the freedom of black people . . . but also for the souls of whites and the redemption of America. ‘If physical death is the price I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from the permanent death of spirit, then nothing could be more redemptive.’ ” 25 And again: “At a National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago (1963), [King] challenged white religious leaders who hesitated to support the civil rights movement to take up the cross of fighting for racial justice, even though ‘it may mean walking through the valley of the shadow of suffering. . . . Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.’ ” 26 In King’s words we see the connections we saw with Socrates. Fearing what is truly fearful—estrangement from Christ’s love by refusing the path of enemy love—is, in some elemental fashion, essential to being available to the intervention of the Power capable of translating what is corruptible into what is incorruptible. And undergoing death rather than evading death—that is, neither resenting physical death nor hating those white rulers and mobs captivated by fear of it (and who are then devoted to warring against the vulnerability and weakness asked and demanded of them by their black brothers and sisters)—is an essential and inescapable part of fearing what is truly fearful. {90}

The second connection to draw is between Cone and Vanier concerning disability and blackness. Above I spoke about how persons with disabilities can invite listeners into the same saving un-knowing that Socrates invited his listeners. The connection there relied upon the observation that non-disabled persons are crippled in their encounters both with each other and disabled persons because of their fear of death. On account of their fear of death, owing to choosing themselves over choosing truth that is not theirs to possess, the citizens of Athens only succeeded in weaving a fabric of lies around themselves. Conversely, severely handicapped persons such as Walker are not crippled in their encounters with others because they are not animated by the fear of death owing to their having chosen themselves—their natural endowments—over others and the truth. They “are” and call us to “be”. “Walker is an experiment in human life lived in the rare atmosphere of the continuous present. Very few can survive there,” Brown writes.

At this point, I think it becomes prejudicial to limit the faces of the severely handicapped to showing the face of Socrates—please recall Vanier’s comment that “we see the face of God within the disabled.” Simone Weil writes that Christ is both the Samaritan travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho and the victim at the side of the road. He both denies himself (i.e. rejects “ego”) in order to establish others and he accepts the violence of those who will not deny themselves to do the same. Persons such as Walker are found in both of these roles as well. 27 Vanier and Brown, each in their own way, alert us to how they not only pick up the able-bodied from the side of the road by revealing true justice to them, but also how they suffer the violence that comes from the non-disabled’s egoistic love of their natural endowments.

What does this have to do with Cone? There is a straightforward connection in that black victims of lynching also serve in both these roles. But in order to see this, we need to observe two things. First, the guilt or the innocence of the black victims has no bearing on their fulfillment of these roles. Cone tells us that black men and women could be lynched for multiple reasons: because they looked at a white person the wrong way, because they spoke the wrong way, because they owned property that white persons desired, or just because. They also could be lynched because they did something wrong: stole, assaulted, raped, or killed. We are tempted to see these crimes as justifying or at least mitigating the lynchings. Yet we must not. For the rules were unequally applied. White thieves, assailants, rapists, and murders were entitled to representation, due process, and a jury of their peers. Black men and women were not. In every case of lynching, then, we have an innocent victim. The crime that is being prosecuted is not the crime of theft or assault; it is the crime of blackness. Thus, even in {91} cases where the victim stole or killed, Christ was present. Not only that, in every lynching Christ the redeemer was present as well. Criminal or saint, cowardly or courageous, pathetic or resilient, shameless or stoic, it doesn’t matter: if there is “salvation” for the lynch mob, it comes in seeing that the one who they thought doesn’t count, who has nothing to offer, is the source of their redemption just as he is. Canadian poet Alden Nowlan writes that the most difficult thing is to forgive those you have yourself humiliated, cheated, and betrayed, usually done to someone you do not think worthy. 28 To speak of forgiving the victim of lynching is deeply perverse, but what it applies to is the deep tendency for persons to find cause for their violence in the person of the victim. They were irritating, ugly, weak, foul-smelling, smug, cocky, hostile, insubordinate, ingratiating, pathetic, spineless. Forgiving the victim does not mean that these defects and faults will no longer be held against them and that we will condescend to share their company. It means, first, that the victimizers recognize that these “faults” are seen not because of their objective reality but because of their generalized hostility to the victim. They are fictions of our making. Second, it means that the victimizers see the dignity of the person as he is, faults and warts and virtues and all. Perhaps the victim was arrogant. Perhaps the victim was sycophantic. Perhaps the victim was ugly and difficult and demanding, for both psychological and physiological reasons. Perhaps the victim was “idiotically” loving and trusting. Perhaps the victim was a scoundrel. Forgiving means seeing the victim’s dignity in the person they are, included in which is their biological, social, and psychological inheritance, and finding oneself dignified in their company. 29


To reiterate, the purpose of this essay has been to argue that there is significant continuity between the perspective of Darwin and Vanier. This is not an obvious claim. As the second section tried to outline, there is considerable tension between the two. Indeed, when the geneticist speaks of “deleterious effects” she is speaking in language that can be traced to Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, the latter especially being a text which has a very complicated relationship to persons such as Walker. Vanier and Darwin may both see Walker as uniquely capable of cultivating the social instincts of love and sympathy, but Darwin alone sees this circumstance as a very mixed blessing, and there is very little that he offers that can approach Vanier’s insistence that Walker is intrinsically valuable member of the community whose absence would be an incalculable loss. It would be far-fetched to imagine Darwin saying that he sees the face of God in the face of persons with disabilities. {92}

The reason for these tensions between Vanier and Darwin is largely because of how Darwin interprets what he calls the “struggle for existence.” Nevertheless, my claim is that there is continuity between Darwin and Vanier and that in order to see it we need to reinterpret the “struggle for existence.” This is the reason for our extensive discussion and analysis of Socrates and Cone and how physical death appears in their works. If I may abbreviate drastically, what Socrates and Cone demand of their listeners and readers is a dramatic yet unexaggerated renunciation of ego, and what they invite us to discover in this renunciation is that physical death no longer appears as dreadful as it formerly did. Something else far more dreadful hovers, namely, egoistic separation from others and from the truth. The goal is to meet death without falling into spiritual death, the latter being a condition that is, in its very essence, adversarial towards living nakedly before any Power other than oneself. Accordingly, Socrates and Cone keep us from hurried condemnations of death and open our eyes to the truth that much of our rebellion against death is the fruit of our spiritual immaturity, our childishness, our selfish fears, our discomfort with ourselves. In addition, each draws our attention to the fullness of community that is possible through this renunciation of ego. This is a form of community that sees the humanity of the weak and marginalized and finds itself drawn nearer to God in being drawn nearer to them.

Darwin’s idea of the “struggle for existence” emerged from his reading of Robert Thomas Malthus on human population. Malthus observed that humans can reproduce “geometrically” (2x2x2x2) whereas agricultural production can increase only “arithmetically” (2+2+2+2). One place this remarkable growth was evident, as well as it’s the limits of its sustainability, was in the “New World,” Malthus argued. Darwin moved from this observation of human reproduction to observe its truth among other species. In the Origin he calculates that a single pair of elephants, the slowest of all breeders, would at a minimum, have fifteen million descendants over five hundred years if all the offspring survived. To support the emerging picture of these incredible rates of increase, he draws our attention to the rapid spread of invasive species and to how the numbers of domestic animals escalate rapidly when allowed to run wild. Accordingly, while persons are inclined to view the English countryside as a peaceful place, Darwin realized that this was not so for we simply do not see the population growths that Malthus leads us to expect, and the reason must be because massive loss is taking place. The causes of this loss are many, among them climate shifts, disease, predation, and competition between organisms for limited resources. Importantly, while we tend to think of the struggle for existence as between predators and prey, Darwin emphasizes repeatedly that the struggle will be most intense between individuals of the same species, “for {93} they frequent the same districts, require the same food, and are exposed to the same dangers.” This led Darwin to the important judgment that for similar varieties or species to coexist, they must diverge in a significant respect in how they make a living: “[T]he more diversified the descendants from any one species in structure, constitution, and habits, by so much will they be better enabled to seize on many and widely diversified places in the polity of nature, and so be enabled to increase in numbers.” 30

At this point, Darwin provides the only diagram in the whole of Origin. It is of a “tree of life”—that is, it is a diagram of how Darwin understands this process of “divergence of character” proceeding. The diagram speculatively illustrates how a genus of eleven species in two species groups (“species groups” are groupings of species more similar to one another than they are to other species in the genus) may develop over fourteen thousand generations into fifteen new species and five new species groups. Darwin plots dotted lines emerging from some of the species, which represent different varieties of the species. Dotted lines separated by the greatest distance represent varieties diverging the most from each other, and these are the lineages that are most likely to survive. “Branches” then emerge from various species, the majority of these branches dying out over time alongside a significant minority that persevere, albeit under constant modification and further branching themselves. After fourteen thousand generations, eight new species have evolved from the one species (A), while the majority of the original eleven species have not produced any descendants to the fourteenth thousand generation. (Species (I) is the other fecund original species, with six new species emerging from it). The diagram is beautiful. It illustrates the richness in diversity that emerges from the rate of reproduction. There is extinction, certainly, but this extinction is not peripheral to the beauty; rather, it is central to it, and the diagram reminds the observer that all die, the “successes” and the “failures”, and the being of each makes a small but essential contribution to the beauty of the whole.

There are many places where Darwin writes very movingly of this beauty. Yet, there is another voice, the voice we have highlighted in previous sections. Later in his reflections on this diagram, Darwin makes explicit the connection between the process it tries to illustrate and actual existing trees. “The green and budding twigs may represent existing species,” he writes. “At each period of grown all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have tried to overmaster other species in the great battle for life.” 31 The language here is stunning—“overtop,” “kill,” “overmaster”—and it returns us to the language we noted above with our first discussions of the “struggle for existence.” No wonder a recent interpreter writes that Darwin “saw all organisms as constantly striving to increase in abundance and doing so at the {94} expense of others, perhaps by eating them or competing with them for the same resources. . . . All living things are engaged in constant, competitive, exploitative interactions to gain an advantage.” 32

Now, the whole point of our discussions of Socrates and Cone has been to clarify, dramatize, and substantiate this following claim: Darwin speaks in the voice of one who thinks death is the greatest of all evils. His anthropomorphic metaphors/descriptions of nature tilt in that direction. When he asks us to enter imaginatively into the “struggle for existence,” it’s often either as a member of a species (temporarily) triumphant or as a member of a species overwhelmed by the adaptive achievements of others. We are either winning or losing the war, gaining the advantage or losing the advantage. But there is no need for this. We need to see that while Darwin may be giving us an accurate picture of how new and more complex forms arise, this does not mean that he always speaks for this process. My suggestion is that the voice of nature is closer to the voices of Socrates and Cone. Again, Socrates and Cone call us to a profound and particular renunciation of ego. If we follow the path they set out, we are enabled to see that each individual of each species is an inheritor of a long history. More specifically, an organism is a storied form, a form that is a moment in an ongoing “dialogue” with both the environment and other organisms, organisms on which it depends and is not only in competition with. Holding this perspective allows us to see the beauty of the “geometric” rate of increase that generates the one-sidedly named “struggle for existence.” The “struggle for existence” is not the furnace individual organisms are forced to enter and which has no regard for them. It is not a tyrant leading individual organisms to search desperately for the niche adaptation that will allow “them” to continue for future generations—to what end no one knows, if there is one. Rather, the “struggle for existence” is simply another expression of what already has been observed, namely, the organism’s non-ownership of the life it has. The elephant does not stingingly cling to the storied form that has given it a wondrous integration of desire and movement among its kind, other kinds, and the environment. It gives it away to its offspring. In doing so, it does not seek to command or control the future but makes its contribution to ensure that the future remains both unknown and welcome for living things, further mysteries of diverse and complex life to come. The rate of increase that Darwin observed is an amazing generator of more-from-less that all living things are indebted to. The obedience of living things to it is not an effort to forget their storied past and to possess the future. Rather, it is their entirely consistent participation in the process that provided life for them and will provide for the lives of others.

The argument, once again, is that there is more in common between Darwin and Vanier than Brown sees. Reading Darwin through the lenses of {95} Socrates and Cone does not pervert or twist Darwin, I believe. It allows us to see better what is there to be seen but which is enormously difficult to see given that our vision is held hostage by the fear of death. In particular, reading Origin through Socrates and Cone allows us to treat the tree of life that Darwin’s illustrates with less ambivalence than Darwin. This ambivalence is expressed most clearly in The Descent of Man, where Darwin both celebrates the achievements gained for humans by the selection of the social instincts and worries about what the future might bring because of them. Ian and Walker Brown are caught in this tragic circumstance, as are all of us. But we can escape these binds if we observe things through the eyes of Socrates and Cone. If we do so, we are able to see that the social instincts are not a “weapon” or a “good trick” in the “struggle for existence”—a “good trick” that may later come to haunt us. Instead, the selection of sympathy and love is consistent with the beauty of the whole. The social instincts are a variation whose arrival is intelligible given the shape of what has preceded them. Sympathy and love are not elements that are strangely out of step since the whole does not have a warring-spirit where the contest concerns the temporary victory of some individuals over others before the shared enemy of death. Certainly all living things love themselves and defend vigorously the good of their being (thus both protecting their kind and ensuring its passing away as new beneficial variations are integrated). So they should. The question is whether it is sensible to burden other living things with our anxious choice of ourselves over the truth, and whether the good of our being consists only in the integration of desire and movement within the horizon of physical birth and death. Nothing about Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection says that these questions are out of bounds, although the dominant opinion is that the theory says just that. Popular writing on evolution and ethics since Darwin is beset by the assumption that the test or “meaning” for every variation is how well it benefits the organism within this temporal horizon. But this assumption is in need of support. Note the following: a) variations cannot be selected if they hurt survival and reproduction, but this does not mean survival and reproduction alone is the point of the variation; b) organisms are struggling to exist, but that does not mean that mere existence is what they are struggling for. Logically, these distinctions cannot be denied, yet they are denied repeatedly because writers share Darwin’s very human view of the evilness of physical death, leading to tortured analyses of sympathy and compassion. The torture is misplaced—it belongs to our challenge to see through the eyes of Socrates and Cone and, in so doing, to see that nature shares those eyes as well. Yes, we are out of step with nature in many respects, but not in our compassion and sympathy in a supposed context of war. We are out of step with nature in just that way of thinking and loving that leads {96} us to believe that our efforts to “transcend” the struggle for existence by living in community with people like Walker is somehow a betrayal of the evolutionary story that produced us.


I will conclude by making two observations about the second creation story of Genesis, observations that are, I hope, in line with all of the above. First, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil has often been understood as a tree that gives what it has. Somehow the tree contains this knowledge and somehow, if the humans eat of it, they will receive it. For reasons beyond our understanding, however, this good is prohibited for humans, and though it seems sensible that Adam and Eve were tempted by it, the lesson of the story is that no created good, no matter how appealingly good, can be put before obedience to the command of God. And so we have another very ambivalent, very difficult tree. Yet, I suggest that another interpretation is better. That the tree is called the tree of knowledge of good and evil does not mean that knowledge of good and evil is what the tree contains and gives, if eaten. There is another possibility, namely, that this tree will become for the man and woman a tree of knowledge of good and evil if they observe the Lord God’s command not to eat of it. Nothing is concealed or hidden in the tree and yet “it” will sow in them knowledge of good and evil if only they keep the Lord God’s word. Perhaps what the Lord God is saying is this: “Let this tree become for you a tree of the knowledge of good and evil by keeping my command not to eat of it.” This means that there are two ways into the knowledge of good and evil. There is the way of the serpent, which is the way of mistrust, self-concern, and disobedience, and the way of the Lord God, which is the way of trust, selflessness, and obedience. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil has this name because this knowledge is the consequence of both obedience and disobedience, but with this qualification: the particular route one travels into the knowledge of good and evil makes all the difference for what one knows. The man and woman have won the knowledge of good and evil belonging to mistrust and disobedience. Their cowering behavior before each other, God, and the community of living things is the natural consequence of the choice of themselves over a good that is not theirs to possess.

The tree of life, on this reading, also shifts its meaning. Like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we are not to read it as having something that it gives through the simple act of eating. Once we do this, we get past the persistent puzzle that though it is present in the garden, it does not attract Adam and Eve’s attention in the least. For those of us who are sons and daughters of Adam and Eve and who have inherited and chosen the knowledge of good and evil belonging to mistrust and disobedience, the {97} indifference of Adam and Eve to this tree is baffling: “Eat that first! Run to it! Sure, maybe the other tree is nobler but no need to roll the dice when the insurance is present before you!” Yet their inattention to it points us in the right direction, namely, that the meaning and power of the tree of life is relative to the choice we make concerning the tree of knowledge of good and evil. What I’m trying to say is this. Perhaps life eternal is available to Adam and Eve, but it is available to them only if they meet physical death while remaining in the knowledge of good and evil belonging to path of obedience. Their exile from the garden and the way to the tree of life being guarded “simply” represents the fact that, having chosen knowledge of good and evil belonging to the path of disobedience, life eternal is not available to them because they have made themselves unavailable to the Power that established them. We should not be surprised that in the context of this route enmity appears, along with increased pain, corruption, and toil. And perhaps we should not be surprised that many in history have found that the roots of the tree of life extend outside the garden, but into places we, sharing the serpent’s mind, are not inclined to look: among the disabled, among the criminally condemned, among the lynched and crucified, and among the many passing forms of living things, in the company of which we are wonderfully included.


  1. Ian Brown, The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for his Disabled Son (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2009), 3.
  2. Ibid., 167.
  3. Ibid., 159.
  4. Ibid., 177.
  5. Ibid., 207–208.
  6. Ibid., 208–209.
  7. Ibid., 234.
  8. Ibid., 284.
  9. Ibid., 284.
  10. Ibid., 285.
  11. Charles Darwin, Evolutionary Writings, ed. James A. Secord (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 134.
  12. Ibid., 143.
  13. Ibid., 136–137.
  14. Ibid., 140.
  15. Ibid., 159–160.
  16. Plato, Apology, trans. F. J. Church, in From Plato to Derrida, 5th ed., ed. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008), 23b. {98}
  17. Ibid., 29b.
  18. Ibid., 39a–b.
  19. This language is borrowed from Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 8.
  20. Brown, 221.
  21. Ibid., 218.
  22. James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2012), 22–23.
  23. Ibid., 86–86.
  24. Ibid., 79.
  25. Ibid., 82.
  26. Ibid., 84.
  27. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper Perennial, 1951), 84–94.
  28. My awareness of this statement of Nowlan’s comes through the reflections of David Adams Richards, God Is. My Search for Faith in a Secular World (Anchor Canada, 2010), 47.
  29. I am worried that my comments suggest that disabled persons and the black victims of lynching are the means of redemption: after suffering the initial violence of neglect, abuse, and hatred, disabled people and black men and women must suffer the further violence of being made the redeemers of their abusers’ sin and guilt. Instead, what I am reaching for is that life and health for the non-handicapped and white victimizers can only come by seeing and loving disabled persons and black men and women as the particular persons they are—not “for salvation,” not “for redemption,” not to “pay for sins,” not “to achieve reconciliation”—which involves, essentially, setting “an infinite price upon the faculty of free choice.” Those are Weil’s words (Waiting for God, 116). What I am trying to say by them is that “salvation” comes by respecting the freedom of the other, the exercise of which may not include you. “Company” in the last sentence above, therefore, does not mean companionship let alone friendship. It means keeping company with all others by emptying ourselves of false divinity, by giving up being the center of the world in imagination, and by discerning that all points in the world are equally centers and that the true center is outside the world. Weil’s words again (Waiting for God, 93–94).
  30. Darwin, Evolutionary Writings, 159.
  31. Ibid., 172.
  32. David N. Reznick, “The Origin” Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to “The Origin of Species” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 66.
Justin Neufeld teaches philosophy at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg.

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