Milbank on Gift

Milbank on Gift May 2, 2006

To wind up our discussion of gift, we will cover three large concerns. First, we will examine Milbank’s work, particularly his essay “Can A Gift Be Given?”, to see how he handles the challenges thrown up by Derrida and Marion. Second, we will take some time to think about the different dimensions of a biblical-theology of gift, or a systematic theology of gift, with the idea that every locus of theology can be fruitfully described in terms of gift and gratitude, exchange and reciprocity. Finally, we will spend some time with more practical considerations about what giving, receiving, and gratitude.

Milbank begins his essay with a survey of the linguistic history of the word “gift” and related words. Citing a sermon of Hugh Latimer, where he complains about giffe-gaffe, the demand that receiving a gift lays an obligation to return a gift. The phrase means “give and take,” and “suggests,” Milbank argues, “that taking differs from giving by a single vowel. He highlights also the various ambiguities of the language of gift: Giving can slide into reception, as in the phrase “give way” or the statement that the trees “give” in a strong wind. Further, “give” can be used both for a good and a bad exchange: We give a blow as well as a gift; worse, a good gift can slide into a bad (an inheritance spoils a child) and vice versa (a vicious personal attack forces us to be honest with ourselves). “Giff” in old English means “takings,” and “gif” is both poison and gift; Greek and Latin, Milbank notes, contain the same ambiguity, using dosis to refer both to poison and medicine.

Besides the ambiguities of giving/receiving, and good/bad giving, there is the ambiguity between “a subjective and value-laden usage of gift words over-against a cold, neutral and impersonal one.” When we say something is simply “a given,” is that because “our language is haunted by the praise of the gods or God” or “is it that nothing simply and eternally is, but always first arrives or arises, if not through space, then at least through time”? when we consider linguistic usage, it appears that “‘giving’ is just as ‘transcendental’ a term as ‘being.’” Giving is also bound up with time; like Derrida, Milbank plays on the English “present” (time) and “present” (gift), suggesting that “the present (thing or moment) always, despite its stasis, ‘is’ in virtue of its being given from elsewhere or from the past, which is equally the arrival ahead of itself of the future.” He sums up this exploration: “The appearances of the English language, therefore, suggest that the gift is, first of all, inseparable from exchange (giving from giving back) and also that it is caught up in three ambiguities: to give is also to take; a good gift is also a bad gift (benefit is also corruption); and finally ‘the given’ is both the result of a deliberate generous donation and a brute unyielding fact or principle, alien to will or effect.”

What is it that makes a gift? And how does it differ from contractual exchanges? Milbank argues that modernity defines the gift purely in terms of freedom, its “non-compulsory” character. A gift is not defined at all by content: “A gift may be anything: what matters, as in the case of modern as opposed to ancient liberty, is correct intention and lack of constraint in the circumstances surrounding the act.” Gifts tend to be private, while contract is public. Yet, even in modern societies, “many practices still fall ambiguously between gift and contract” – Milbank considers business lunches, tips, various courtesies that “surround and support pragmatic activities which people contract into for their private benefit.” This suggests that the distinction of gift and contract that appears so easy doesn’t hold fast, and this reflects the larger aporia of generosity, namely, that generosity is an obligation. Does this then mean that any gift is reducible/deconstructible to contract? Is the purest gift “a handing-over of a large bag containing bank notes to anyone in the street (anyone save one who appeared poor, since the poor are related to us via the credit of our guilt).”

Milbank begins to address the suspicion that gift is a cover for contract, or reducible to it, with a consideration of gift in the context of eros: “human generosity belongs within the context of prior attachments, or at the very least the making of such attachments. This suggests at once that a reflection upon erotic love is not irrelevant to an elucidation of agapeic donation. We have inherited a contrast between agape, a ‘giving’ love, and eros, a ‘desiring’ love, but human erotic attachments are only sustained by an incessant exchange of gifts, which are always tokens of further, future gifts, such that desire is never fulfilled as possession, for a constitutive lack in desire will always prove its own thwarting . . . . As against a logic which would associate a purity of love with unilateral action, it seems not insignificant that within romantic love an asymmetry of giving, where only one partner gives presents and favours, suggests not at all freedom and gratuituousness, but rather an obsessive admiration that subsists only at a willfully melancholic distance, or still worse a purchase of sexual satisfaction, and in ether case the slide of desire towards one-sided private possession. Giving here is most free where it is yet most bound, most mutual and most reciprocally demanded.”

Against this backdrop, Milbank suggests several features of gifts that distinguish the gift from the contract. First, following Bourdieu, Milbank argues that a gift is characterized by a delay of return and a difference between the gift and the return. A gift is a matter of non-identical repetition, or non-identical mimesis. Second, he suggests that a gift is identifiable by the particularity of its content. Modern contract is carried out by an exchange of money, but in archaic gift economies, the things exchanged are important in themselves. Finally, he argues that gifts are never bound by tight legal rules; one plays with the rules, and this “bending is part of the rules.” One might, for instance, refuse to return a gift as a strategic insult. That’s part of the game, and won’t land you in court for breach of contract.

But even delay and non-identical return can be reduced, as in the work of Bourdieu, to masked contract. Milbank suggests that this is only because Bourdieu has assumed that economic self-interest is indistinguishable from lust for honor or religious impulses – if all of the other motivations for giving are ultimately “really” an effort to increase one’s own wealth. Bourdieu does, however, force a more precise project on Milbank: “If gifts are only given in order to render indebted, to ensure a return of honour, and if debt drives the whole system to ensure continued exact compliance with what has been laid down, marked out by the powerful, both dead and living, then there can be, we must judge, no real gift. There only can be gift if delay and non-identical repetition can be shown to be in principle irreducible to the operation of such tactics, to the ensuring of the primacy of debt, and the always identical marks of honour.”

Milbank also offers a concise critique of Derrida’s deconstruction of the gift. Derrida’s move (which I’ve examined in a previous lecture) does not mean that Derrida gives up talking about gift. Rather, gift becomes “a kind of unmeaning which must guide all our (ontological) meaning.” There i
s an analogy between the impossibility of the gift and the impossibility of the “present” moment, of “presence”: “not only is it the case that a gift is not and cannot be, it is also true that ‘a present’ in the sense of a present moment is not, since the present moment has always vanished as soon as it has arrived. But if the present is not, since Being is ineradicably linked to the notion of presence, Being itself is instantly dissolved into nothingness and unmeaning. The non-being and non-logic which afflicts the gift affects also Being itself, which opens the way to allowing that language might have to be as much about gift, as about what is.” Giving thus becomes as real or as unreal as time (Milbank notes Heidegger’s es gibt here). Thus, for Derrida, there is no possibility of a human gift, yet being human means being haunted by the possibility of a gift.

Milbank traces this “purism” to a particular understanding of agape, that is, to theological sources: “This rigour takes the form of disassociating agape in turn from the giver’s own happiness or well-being, then from eros or any kind of desire to be with the recipient of your love, then from justice or ‘giving the other his due’ . . . and finally from power, or the inescapable persuasion of the other involved in every offering.” This rigor, he claims, is “unbiblical for all that it seeks to be super-biblical,” and it ends with depersonalization and the assertion of will: The disinterest of the gift can only be carried out by a subject, but this subject is “suicidally sacrificial” in its giving. Further, he claims that it is allied to a “questionable Kantian understanding of the goodness of the gift as residing in purity of will or motivation.”

In place of this purism, Milbank argues that Christian agape is actually a matter of “purified gift-exchange.” This position means that delay and non-identical mimesis in gift exchange need not be “obfuscatory and self-serving strategy,” but rather involve the “necessarily creative self-expression of the genuine giver” that includes “a requisite attention to the other, her character, situation and mood.” A gift is not dependent on purity of motive, but on the suitability of the thing given, and thus the gift is not ruined by an impure motivation. Delight in giving also has a role here: “one can enjoy giving, not only in the mode of self-congratulation, but also as a kind of ecstasies, or continuation of oneself out of oneself.” Desire for a response is not necessarily tarnished self-interest, but could be a “recognition of ineradicable connection with others and a desire for its furtherance.” On this understanding, agapeic giving becomes “a self-affirmation that is also a self-displacement, since it seeks to resituate self through the address of others towards me.” Citing Marion, Milbank notes that “to receive the other in receiving his gift demands that the distance of the other remains in place.” A gift is a gift of distance, and this militates against any effort “to possess the other and his gifts, to receive them as exactly due rewards, or as things we do not need to go on receiving.”

To reach this purification, however, requires that gift exchange be detached from the agonistic social (and ontological) context in which it is set in archaic societies. How is this to be done? Milbank points out that archaic gift-societies do not achieve this precisely because giving remains locked within an agonistic, competitive social setting and within the circle of the same. There is little scope in such societies for the genuine free creativity of giver or recipient. What gives and demands repayment is not an identifiable other, but the debt to the ancestors, which can be reciprocated only by identically repeated memorializations. Thus, “What matters in such societies is not the claim which the other makes upon us in his irreducible externality – such that whatever common space may circumscribe us both it is never closed or completely defined (so also open to the arrival of new ‘others’) – but rather the securely maintained whole, prevailing either at the level of the organic society, or that of the single individual, wearers of the mask of the tribe, and especially the representative chief or king.” Such societies never achieve a “primacy of serial relation” in which the other is an interruption of the circle of the same, but an interruption that “constitutes the identity of the same, yet never in a foreclosed fashion.” Such a system would “amount to a real priority of gift-exchange, or a necessary reception and outgoing on the part of the human subject.” There must be “a primary relationality” or there is no gift, and Milbank sees this primary relationality in the biblical notion of a covenant between God and Israel.

The covenant idea provides a means for bridging the gap between gift and contract. For Israel, God is not an ancestor, yet He is described in familial terms (Israel is His Son), and He is alive. Since He lives, He “makes ever-new demands (as he gives ever-new gifts)” and thus “every human covenanted partner is also treated as one who needs, in himself, specific sorts of gifts.” The gift is no longer a matter o “preserving the same inscriptions, but rather of sending a message appropriate to the particular recipient.” The “relatively contractual” notion of covenant “ensures that questions of justice, which is to say of appropriateness, intrude more into the sphere of gift.” This is not a contamination of gift, since appropriateness is one of the conditions of a good gift. Covenant provides a way to “preserve a familial logic at the point where, otherwise, one would surrender to the formalism of contract.”

Milbank traces out some contours of a biblical theology of gift, highlighting some significant features of the Levitical sacrificial system. Levitical offerings were sometimes entirely devoted to God (ascension), sometimes reserved for the priesthood (purifications) and sometimes distributed among God, priests, and people (peace offering). This implies “equal purification of all members of this society in their offering to God (and even of all peoples, universally) rather than literal ‘sustaining’ of a hierarchy and division of the relatively pure and impure, insider and outsider, as in most other cultures.” He suggests that the point here is that the repetition of the gift is “prised away from any specific expectation or duty of return, but related instead to a heightened and infinite expectation of variegated return in acts of mercy which alone complete and legitimate a universal sacrificial offering.” God’s mercy and goodness has no limit, and so likewise, “there is no limit to the joyful return made of Israel herself to God.” The logic is transferred to alms in the sense that we give to the needy “without stint or ‘counting of the cost,’” as God has given to us. And this means that “only gratitude and ‘good use’ are expected in return.” In a footnote, he cites Mary Douglas’s point that “Levitical impurity is a fact of biology, common to all persons, and also a result of specific moral offences that anyone is liable to commit such as lying or stealing . . . Biblical impurity is of no use in demarcating advantaged social classes or ranks.” (It should be noted here that this is precisely what the Jews of Jesus time had made it!)

The NT disrupts the agonistic exchanges of archaic societies even further. Milbank notes that Paul teaches we should owe no man anything save love, which “means that the infinite debt is now a light b
urden and easy yoke, even where it involves repentance, since all that is due is our own outgoing within which alone we are.” The exchange of gifts is what constitutes the church as a body made up of Jews and Gentiles: The Romans “are exhorted to acknowledge the gift of the announcement of God which they owe to the Jews and their law, not only by words but also by material almsgiving to the poor in Jerusalem.”

The gospel, as it shapes the church, announces the possibility of purified gift exchange: “We are . . . given the possibility to love because we are given the true shape of love in the form of a love that is always already repeated . . . . To be a Christian is not, as piety supposes, spontaneously and freely to love, of one’s own originality and without necessarily seeking any communion. On the contrary, it is to repeat differently, in order to repeat, exactly, the content of Christ’s life, and to way, by a necessary delay, the answering repetition of the other that will fold temporal linearity back into the eternal circle of the triune life.” Thus the “new covenant fully sustains a prophetic delay and non-identical repetition of the gift sufficient to characterize it as gift.” The new covenant fulfills the aspirations of local gift-exchange societies. Milbank describes the goal as “perpetual Eucharist,” meaning by this “a living through the offering . . . of the gift given to us of God himself in the flesh.”

Here, we can only offer the barest, most superficial sketch of a theology of gift, but perhaps the points here will be suggestive for further development.

1) Let’s begin with the economy of redemption, which is quite explicitly described in terms of giving. In the most famous verse in the NT, Jesus says that the Father loved the world and “gave” His only-begotten Son (John 3:16). This gift from the Father is also a self-gift of the Son, who “gave Himself for our sins” to rescue us from the present evil age (Gal 1:4; cf. 1 Tim 2:6; Tit 2:14), “gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20), and, as a loving husband, “gave Himself” for His bride (Eph 5:2, 25). Not only the Son, but the Spirit, as Augustine recognized, is a gift from the Father and the Son to us (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5), so that all who believe and are baptized receive the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38), whether Jews or Gentiles (Acts 10:45). The righteousness of justification (Rom 5:17) and eternal life (Rom 6:23) are gifts freely offered.

According to Saarinen, “God is directly called the giver 104 times [in Scripture], of which 42 are in John’s Gospel and John’s Letters. In addition to these, the so-called divine passive . . . often occurs as an indirect reference to divine giving. Jesus Christ is presented as the giver 68 times, of which 26 are in John. Moreover, Jesus is portrayed as the receiver of what God gives 28 times in John.” The God revealed in the cross, in the resurrection, and at Pentecost is the God who gives. He is, as James calls Him, the “giving God.”

Luther’s Small Catechism asks, about the first article of the creed, What does it mean to believe in God the Father? The answer is, to believe is to recognize Him as giver, and to respond with thanks, service, and obedience: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.”

2) It is also explicit in the NT that giving crosses not only the distance between Creator and creature, but giving is characteristic of the life of the Triune God Himself. The Father gives His Son to us, and the Son whom He gives is the Son to whom He has given all things, the Spirit without measure (John 3:34-35); the Father has given Jesus life and authority to judge (John 5:26-27). By His resurrection and ascension, Jesus receives from the Father headship over the Church and over all things (Eph 1:22). Through the resurrection the Father has given Jesus glory (1 Pet 1:21), glory that He had shared with the Father from all eternity. Specifically, at the baptism of Jesus, the Father poured out the gift of the Spirit on the Son, and this economic event suggests that the Spirit is the gift mutually exchanged by the Father and Son, whose fellowship and love are constituted and eternally new because of the eternal reciprocity of the gift of the Spirit.

As Saarinen says, Jesus is set in all three positions in the gift exchange: He is the giver, the gift itself, and the recipient of gifts from the Father. This is just another way of saying that Jesus is the mediator: That is, He is the one midpoint, the one who both receives gifts from the Father, and passes on, hands over (paradidomi, traditio) those gifts to His people.

3) Human beings are made in the image of this giving God, and this suggests that giving, reception, and return are part of the cycle of human existence as well. Man is created as a recipient of gifts; Adam’s very existence is a gift that God is not constrained to give, a gift that does not meet any lack in God’s being. Man is fundamentally a recipient – “what do you have that you did not receive?”

But the radical character of the reception here must not go unnoticed: As Milbank points out, this is an utterly unilateral gift, in that there is no recipient prior to the gift. At the human level, “gift” and “obligation” are contrasted: Repaying a debt is not the same as giving a gift. But because God is God, self-sufficient and transcendent, this logic does not apply. As Milbank says, “gratuity arises before necessity or obligation and does not even require the contrast in order to be comprehensible. The creature as creature is not the recipient of a gift, it is itself this gift . . . . since there is no preceding recipient, the spirit is a gift to a gift and the gifting of giving oneself to oneself, which is the only way consciously to live being as a gift and so to be spirit.”

And this, Milbank argues, means that human existence, insofar as it is human reception and response, is simply gratitude: “one knows that one is not all of possible knowing and willing and feeling and moreover that, since our share of these things is what we are, we do not really command them, after the mode of a recipient of possessions. Hence to will, know, and feel is to render gratitude, else we would refuse ourselves as constituted as gift. Such gratitude to an implied infinite source can only be, as gratitude, openness to an unlimited reception from this source which is tantamount to a desire to know the giver.” Later, Milbank emphasizes that the gift of created being is “so unilateral that it gives even the recipient and the possibility of her gratitude.”

For human beings, gratitude is always prior to gift; gratitude is the stance from which gifts are given. And man is made to stand outside himself, to mimic and to seek another. He is a social being, made in the image of a Creator who is eternally gift and giving. Hence, his life is bound up with gift exchange. Created as recipient of gift, created as gift, man’s primary stance in the creation is to return thanks for what he received from God. Paul characterizes original sin as “refusal to honor God as God” and refu
sal to “give thanks” (Rom 1:21). Man was created to gift thanks, created as a priest – as Schmemann puts it – for a cosmic Eucharist, a grateful return of the gift given by creation. Idolatry is a form of ingratitude, or at best grossly misplaced gratitude, as gifts and thanks are offered to beings who are not responsible for our existence or for anything else for that matter.

Redemption, then, is the gift of God by which man is restored to the proper stance of a creature, the response of gratitude. Abraham by faith gives the glory to God that Adam refused to give (Rom 4). Paul’s collection for the needy Christians of Jerusalem is not merely for the sake of the needy, nor merely to permit the Gentiles to be bound together in an exchange with the Jews (returning material blessings for the spiritual blessings received), but also abounds with thanksgiving to God (2 Cor 9:10-12). Christian living is continuous thanksgiving (Eph 5:20; Phil 4:6; Col 3:17; 1 Thess 5:18; Heb 13:15).

4) Insofar as redemption takes a social form, it takes the form of a society bound together by gift exchange. The church is a gift, the Father’s gift to the Son (John 17:6). But the church is also constituted, nourished, and maintained by gifts. There is, first of all, the gifts exchanged between the head of the church and His body (Eph 4), preeminently the gift of the Spirit from Father and Son, which binds the church in a communion of gifts with the Triune God. But there is also the reality of the gifts received from the Spirit and re-given in service to the other members of the church. What edifies the church is the deployment of the charismata of the Spirit for the common good of the body (1 Cor 12:4-11).

And this is all ritually manifest in the sacraments, particularly in the Eucharist. As Luther insisted, the Supper is preeminently the gift of God to His people, the Father’s gift of His Son in and by the Spirit. This is the church’s potlatch, where the Chief distributes His gifts, and we are to offer praise and thanks in response.

Luther captures the triune self-gift and what it entails in a wonderful passage from his 1528 “Confession”: “These are the three Persons and the one God, Who has given Himself to us wholly with all that He is and all that He has. The Father gives Himself to us, with heaven and earth and all created things, that they may be profitable and of service to us. But this gift was obscured and made fruitless by Adam’s fall, and the Son also gave Himself to us, bestowed on us all His works, sufferings, wisdom and righteousness, and reconciled us to the Father, so that, once more alive and righteous, we perceive and possess the Father and His gifts. But such grace would profit no one if it were to remain a hidden secret and could not be imparted to us. So the Holy Ghost also comes and gives Himself completely to us, teaches us the bounty of Christ, makes us perceive and understand it, helps us to receive and keep it, to use it profitably, to administer it and to increase and further its spread among men, and this He does both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly through faith and other spiritual gifts but outwardly through the Gospel, through Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar, through which, as through means or instruments He comes to us, applies the sufferings of Christ to us and makes them profitable to salvation.”

Here I will review a few passages of Scripture with a few added comments in an effort to provide some practical guidance on the topic of giving and reception. My focus is on gifts exchanged between human beings, rather than gifts given to God.

Let me begin with some basic parameters for giving that arise from the sketchy theology of gift above. First, because we are creatures, we are always already recipients before we give; we receive our very existence as a gift of pure grace. Gratitude for this gift is always prior to any gifts we offer, to God or to others. This provides one of the key guidelines for giving; as Jesus told His disciples, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). Second, human existence is fundamentally social and ecstatic. We are images of God, which means that we find our fulfillment in Another, in going outside ourselves. Third, reciprocity is a good, not an impurity that reduces gifts to contracts, but there are different sorts of reciprocity, some of them enslaving and controlling and some of them liberating.

Against this background, let’s examine a few passages. First, with regard to the giver: Milbank is right that purity of motive is not of the essence of the gift. A mixed motive does not nullify the gift. Yet, there are right and wrong motivations on the part of the giver. We can take one aspect of this from James 1:5: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” While James is speaking about the giving of the giving God, we can reason that we should reflect the same attitude in our giving to one another. James says two things about God’s giving: He gives “simply” and “without reproach.” The first probably means something like “freely” but also includes a notion of “single-mindedly,” that is, without withdrawing the gifts He gives. Some commentators suggest that to give “without reproach” means both giving without regard for past wrongs, and also without constant reminders of favors done. But the Lord does in fact remind His people frequently of His favors to them, and expects certain forms of gratitude in response. Thomas Manton seems on firmer ground when he suggests that James means that God gives without becoming annoyed at our continual requests. He doesn’t reproach us for returning to Him with a new request, but delights in giving and giving again. So should we.

Beyond this, as mentioned in a previous lecture, Jesus instructs givers to give without seeking mastery over others. During the Last Supper, Jesus told His disciples that they should not act like gift-giving “Benefactors” who do good in order to lord it over their subordinates: “And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:24-27). Benefactors gave in hopes of bolstering their status and power. Jesus is not attacking benefaction, gifts, but the use of gifts to become greater than a brother. Instead, as Joel Green says, “the form of leadership appropriate to Jesus’ community . . . is one that is unconcerned with the accrual of status honor but itself reflects the humility of table servants and of those who occupy the bottom rung of social power and privilege, the young.” It is not irrelevant that this conflict and this saying occur at the Last Supper, a meal memorializing the servant-king.

In the same way, Jesus warns in Matthew 6:1-4 about giving alms in such a way as to be noticed by other people, to build up repute on earth: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do
not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Several points to notice. First, Jesus talks about alms-giving as a chief form of “righteousness.” Second, there are two “audiences” for righteousness – God and man – and they are exclusive. Those who practice righteousness, and give gifts, in order to be seen by men, have no reward from the Father. Third, contrary to Derrida, Jesus talks in terms of benefits and rewards, but from the heavenly Father.

With regard to the gift: Jesus defines the good gift in terms of its appropriateness to the recipient: Luke 11:11-13: “Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”

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