Thinking Faith blogs

Whole-life wisdom

The next instalment of our look at the book ‘The whole of life for Christ’, by Antony Billington and Mark Greene, focuses on wisdom. I don’t know about you, but I am often all too aware of my need for wisdom. Whether it is a big life decision we need to make, or an immediate situation where we need to act or react, it is not always easy to know what to do. But where can wisdom be found?

The Bible contains several books that are known as ‘wisdom literature’. Of these, the book of Proverbs speaks most directly about wisdom. Right at the start we are told where wisdom can be found: ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Proverbs 1:7). And right at the end, it gives an example of a life lived wisely (Prov. 31). In a passage sometimes seen as a description of ‘the perfect wife’, we see how the wisdom that is found in the fear of the Lord (31:30) works out in practice. And that for sure is of relevance to both men and women of all walks of life!

A closer look at the passage reveals the wide range of qualities and activities that are praiseworthy in this woman’s life:

  • she can be trusted (11) and provides for those who depend on her (15, 21, 28). Her husband in particular is proud of her and benefits from having her as his wife (11-12, 23)
  • she is diligent (13-14, 18, 27)
  • she is involved in trade
  • she makes beautiful clothes and other fabric items (13, 19, 22, 24)
  • she cooks (15)
  • she is involved in agriculture (16)
  • she is generous to the poor (20)
  • she is respected in the community (25-26, 31)

As Billington and Greene point out, some of her activities are even described in words that are often used for military heroes (10, 17, 25)! They also notice that there is no mention of any religious activities. And yet she is described as ‘a woman who fears the Lord’ (30), with the implication that this fear of the Lord is expressed in all of her activities.

To most of us, the woman of Proverbs 31 is quite an intimidating example. How could we ever live up to that? Well, there is hope! As New Testament believers, we know that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ (Col. 2:3). In this season of Pentecost, we give thanks that God has given us a source of His wisdom within us: His Spirit. So, ‘if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him’ (James 1:5). But notice also that God’s wisdom may not always be in line with what the world perceives to be wise: ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise’, and ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men’ (1 Cor. 1:27a, 25a).

So we have seen that our ordinary lives can be lived ‘heroically’ if they are lived in the fear of the Lord. And that includes our academic lives. By His Spirit, God helps us to live wisely. If there are any areas of your academic life where you need wisdom today, ask Him to help you. Be open to His leading, even if His wisdom may seem foolishness to those who do not know Him!

Agnostic? I don't think so!

Is it possible to be an agnostic? Many would say yes! I say – no!

The idea of being an agnostic goes completely against the idea of 'worldview'. Worldviews are not intellectual ideas. Worldviews are the 'Big Stories' that can mug us and captivate our lives and imaginations. These stories are often invisible and under the surface. You have to dig them out. It’s hard work! We are talking about the deep, spiritual commitments that drive our lives.

Now the agnostic believes that he or she can simply ignore all this. She can sit on the fence. She can be the detached observer of worldviews without having a worldview herself!

This is very misleading. The agnostic has to live in a particular way. The agnostic has to live in a story. By being born we enter a world of choices and decisions. Show me a self-proclaimed agnostic and her bank statement will tell me what she is hiding. The way we make and use our moolah betrays the Story that we trust in. Those who call themselves agnostics are often materialist believers who live in the western story. Often they are blissfully unaware that they are living in a story.

Today we must challenge the epithet 'agnostic'. It is dangerously misleading and spiritually bankrupt.

A Thinking Faith Network

Thinking Faith Network is the parent of Faith-in-Scholarship. The organisation that supports FiSch is a 30-year-old UK-based charity committed to helping people explore how imaginative Christian thinking can transform and enrich every area of life. For a multimedia introduction, the promotional video released on 9 April is now available on YouTube. For some background, read on!

I began working for Thinking Faith back in 2010, when it was called West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies (WYSOCS). Based in Leeds, the charity’s aim was to provide opportunities for education in a wide range of subjects from a Christian perspective. At that time the main activities were an ongoing series of occasional seminars and workshops called LifeMatters, and a ministry called RealityBites that went to schools and youth groups to present Christian faith by contrasting the biblical worldview story with other big stories that shape young people’s lives. Faith-in-Scholarship was born at that time out of a desire to help Christian postgraduate students think through their studies in the light of a Christian philosophy.

The aims and the Leeds base of the organisation remain the same, but its reach has grown. To be fair, the “West Yorkshire” bit of WYSOCS was never meant to restrict geographical reach; speakers and listeners alike regularly came from other parts of the country to LifeMatters events. But the “School” bit wasn’t doing justice to the growing diversity of initiatives and audiences. RealityBites was getting materials onto radio while FiSch was setting out to support campus-based postgraduates’ groups – and Christian thinkers everywhere through this blog. There was a growing awareness that the charity’s heart could be expressed more clearly.

So this spring we became Thinking Faith Network – for “faith in all of life”. That is, biblically-founded Christian faith applied to every area of life. We also profess the faith that all of life matters – to God, eternally, and so to us too. It emphasises that faith can be very fruitfully coupled with thinking, and vice versa.  And it calls for community: networking among thinking Christians for mutual support.

We were delighted when people we approached who’d been involved with WYSOCS in the past agreed to appear on camera endorsing it and its new name. Among them were two prominent writers and speakers called Tom… Prof. Tom McLeish had spoken for LifeMatters last year on Faith and Wisdom in Science; he expressed gratitude for the role WYSOCS had played at an earlier stage of his intellectual development and reminded us of Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12 that God’s people be transformed by the renewing of their minds. Then Prof. Tom Wright, who had spoken at two previous LifeMatters events, generously spent over an hour and a half with the three of us who went to film him, giving us much food for thought. He reminded us of 1 Corinthians 14 (in his impromptu paraphrase): “I want you to be babies when it comes to evil, but when it comes to thinking – you’ve got to be grown-ups!”

We believe that faithful thinking can’t be overvalued, because “ideas have legs”: the most godly and the most evil human actions alike arise through people’s thoughts. Tom McLeish emphasised this at the end of his video clip with a call to potential supporters of Thinking Faith Network: “I would urge you to think about supporting TFN for the long game, because that’s the one that counts.”

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Whole-life gospel

Jesus brainstorm

Following on from last week’s introductory post, we begin our look at Mark Greene and Antony Billington’s brilliant little book with the idea of a ‘whole-life gospel’ – the subject of their first study. The starting-point here is Colossians 1:15–23, which paints a breathtaking picture of Jesus as supreme above all, the source, sustainer and Lord of all creation and the centre of our existence as Christians. The multiple views of Jesus we are given here (following a suggestion in the book, I’ve tried to summarise these in the image for this post) highlight his central role in every aspect of the universe, from creation, through redemption, and into the eternal future. It’s through and for Jesus that everything, visible and invisible, is created; it’s through him that all things are reconciled to God, through his blood; it’s because of this reconciliation that we have the hope of appearing before God pure and holy, as part of his body, the church.

Greene and Billington highlight verses 19–20 as a summary of God’s saving work through Jesus:

For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (NIV)

As they rightly point out, this passage presents quite a challenge to anyone who views the truth of the gospel purely in terms of forgiveness from our sins and access to heaven when we die. In fact, there’s much more than this at stake. Paul presents here an act of total reconciliation that involves the whole of the universe, and starts now, not just in the hope of heaven ahead (in verse 22 he says ‘now he has reconciled you’). This affects every aspect of our lives, then – we benefit from this total forgiveness and reconciliation, and in Christ we are called as servants of this process. As Paul says, ’This is the gospel that you heard’ (v23).

What might this mean for those of us who work in academia? A few ideas:

  • Jesus is still Lord over all. I was particularly struck by Paul’s comment that both ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ things were created in Jesus. Ideas, streams of thought, academic trends and cross-currents – these are often vague and intangible, yet Jesus asserts his right to lordship over them as much as anything else in creation. Even if our daily work involves ‘invisible’ things, we are just as capable of offering them to Jesus as someone who deals in ‘visible’ objects or actions.
  • All things are to be reconciled. Our call is not just to maintain the status quo in our environment whilst inwardly acknowledging our Lord. We are agents of the reconciliation God is working through Jesus. What might it mean for you to bring Christ’s reconciliation within your own field? Within your university or department? Or between your academic work and the other dimensions of your life?
  • In him all things hold together. With the above in mind, I find it a real encouragement that it is Jesus, not us, who has taken on the responsibility of sustaining everything. If we forget this, our glorious calling to serve him becomes a crushing burden, just another way in which we can feel inadequate. We are called to follow him in our lives, wherever they might lead. If he’s called us into academia, we can be assured that he is going ahead of us, and our sole responsibility is to keep close to him and act in vigilant responsiveness to what we see him doing.

The Whole of (Academic) Life for Christ

The Whole of Life for ChristSuppose for a moment that Jesus really is interested in every aspect of your life.

So begins an excellent little book of Bible studies by Antony Billington and Mark Greene, entitled ‘The Whole of Life for Christ’.

And so begins this short series of blog posts inspired by those studies.

Suppose for a moment that Jesus really is interested in every aspect of your academic life. Not just the number of REF-able publications. Not just the conversations you have with your colleagues about Christianity. But everything: the admin, the marking, the struggling undergraduates, the interactions with colleagues, the caterers, the cleaners, the emeritus readers, the figures and footnotes, the grant applications, the university budget, the Students’ Union – even the REF!

Antony Billington and Mark Greene are based at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC), as the Head of Theology and the Executive Director, respectively. They are well known as enthusiastic believers in whole-life discipleship. The book was published last year (2015) by Keswick Resources and IVP (bulk discounts via LICC), and the studies formed the theme for one week of Keswick 2015 (which we reported on last summer).

The plan for this series of posts is to take each topic in turn, and consider what it means for Christian postgraduates and academics. Here’s a sneak preview of where we might be heading…

  1. Whole-life gospel (Colossians 1:15-23). Christ’s work of creation and reconciliation touches every academic discipline.
  2. Whole-life wisdom (Proverbs 31:10-31). A great deal of godly wisdom is needed in order to be a faithful Christian postgraduate.
  3. Whole-life purpose (Jeremiah 29:1-14). Christian postgraduates can feel that the university is a bit like Babylon. But we have been placed there to ‘seek [its] peace and prosperity’ – its shalom.
  4. Whole-life fruitfulness (Galatians 5:13-26). Bearing the fruit of the Spirit makes a big difference to academic life.
  5. Whole-life mission (Matthew 28:16-20). The great commission is about making disciples who submit to Jesus’ authority in every area of life – including academic life.
  6. Whole-life hope (2 Peter 3:3-14). Our hope for the future of the whole creation transforms the way we live in the present – including our academic lives.
  7. Whole-life worship (Psalm 18). Academic research gives us lots of things to praise and thank God for – if we have eyes to see them!

Three of us fellows are involved with the Postgraduate Christian Forum (PGCF) in Liverpool, and we’ve been using these studies recently. We haven’t needed to change them significantly to make them ideally suited to an academic context. Why not get hold of a copy and try the same thing where you are?

Twenty false gods/idols invite you to follow them!

  1. Follow me Sobek, the crocodile god. I am a fertility god and far more powerful than Heqet, the ugly frog god. I am virile beyond belief…
  2. Follow me Baal! I am a Canaanite fertility god and I promise to bless your harvests if you will only give me your children…
  3. Follow me Artemis, the goddess of hunting. I love my gladiator servants who kill wild animals in the Colisseum. I sponsor temple prostitutes and a tidy silver shrine business.
  4. Follow me Sulis-Minerva – Curse your enemies with my magical, supernatural power. That man who stole your toga is toast!
  5. Follow the stars and fate – we can tell you exactly what is fated for you – so relax, sit back and endure the journey. If you are a child abuser like Tiberius…don’t worry – you can’t help it.
  6. Follow me the divine Number 10. I am the never-swerving, the never-tiring holy ten, the keyholder of all.
  7. Follow me the god of sensual pleasure. Let us eat, drink and be merry. Focus please on wine, courtesans and orgies. (Aristippus)
  8. Follow me the tranquillity god. I will give you inner peace as you relax in your garden and make friends (Epicurus)
  9. Follow me the god reason. Think pure thoughts and enslave thick people (Aristotle)
  10. Follow me the pantheist god reason and endure your fate Stiff upper lip old boy! (Marcus Aurelius)
  11. Follow the gods of technology and the internet and there will be an end to hunger, disease, poverty, war and ignorance. (Byron Reese)
  12. Follow the poetry gods. Be unique. Dare to be who you want to be. Let no-one challenge your autonomy.
  13. Follow Pompey, the football god I will ruin your marriage, family and finances but trust in me! (John Westwood)
  14. Follow the scientific materialist way of life. Behold you are a computer made of meat. You are a machine with no intrinsic value.
  15. Follow me the money god. I will show you how to garner a great fortune. You will exhaust yourself in making the filthy lucre and then die in a mansion with no friends.
  16. Follow your heart and become who you want to be. Trust in your instincts and follow your sacred dreams.
  17. Follow Krishna. Forsake the world and live on your own in the temple. Your wife and kids will look after you as you seek enlightenment. Forget them and follow me.
  18. Follow the way of the Bardo and find release from karma and reincarnation. (Tibetan Book of the Dead)
  19. Follow me the god of Christian Science. My name is Mary Baker Eddy and I have spent many hours contacting dead people and they have told me the truth. There is no sickness and evil. It’s all an illusion. Trust me and my special teachings!
  20. Follow me Seth, the spirit guide. You, the worshipper, are ignorant of your deity. It is foolish to repent of your sins. Sin and evil are illusions.

Evangelism among academics

Mark SureyA guest post from Mark Surey.

Mark Surey is Travelling Secretary for the Christian Academic Network (C-A-N-) and also works as a dean and lecturer at a seminary in Louisiana. Eleven of the last twelve friends that Mark has led to Jesus have been faculty members, and we asked him to write about his experiences of sharing the Gospel.

Providence, like fortune, favours the prepared mind.  Although my C-A-N- role is primarily to offer pastoral and professional support to Christian academics, being a compulsive evangelist I am always praying for opportunities to present my faith to unbelievers. My wallet carries both the “Knowing God Personally” booklet and my personal testimony – how I became a Christian when head of British Communist Youth whilst reading Josh McDowell’s tract “The Case of the Empty Tomb”. I’d shared this tract with an Israeli art gallery owner in New York just six days before I was asked to write this post, and I’d shared the booklet with a physics postdoc at UCL in London a couple of weeks before that.  The frustration with being a lecturer every winter in order to “stay honest” as a minister to academics is that my work is generally at American seminaries where all the students are already “saved”!  But effective evangelists are passionate about sharing their faith and seriously ready for any opportunity. If you have never prepared your own story (three short paragraphs on “how” you came to Jesus, “why”, and “what” the consequences are) – do it now, and God will honour you with opportunities to share it.

As someone converted outright by reasoned argument I am certainly not opposed to apologetics, and all Christians, particularly those in higher education, have a duty to be able to present a “reason for the hope inside us” (1 Peter 3:15). We should be able to demonstrate that the Gospel is both internally coherent and externally attestable. Nevertheless, I will add two caveats. Firstly, we come to faith through the revelation of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, not by argument alone. Apologetics is sometimes necessary for credibility, but not sufficient on its own. Undergird arguments to change the mind with prayers to sway the heart! The will is involved also, and most people who follow or reject Jesus do so ultimately for personal reasons, not purely on the basis of the evidence. That is why it matters how we live, to be a friend and to show grace under pressure within the ugliness of academic competition: all these can speak greater volumes than having the right line on a given scholarly question.

For example, my friend Rosario became a believer when researching “light as medicine” at Rutgers University. He became fascinated by the idea that Genesis 1 presented matter and energy as originating from light, but he was also influenced by the moral courage of a colleague – and by falling in love with a Christian girl.  Then he also met someone who could empathize with his Italian Jewish heritage – me! He finally found Jesus in that divine appointment, but there were complex elements of intellectual credibility, Christian personal integrity and personal issues in the “sowing”. That’s expected.

Christ at the centre of good scholarship

Norms ring

Our series “What is good scholarship?” has examined nine aspects* of God’s created order in which we can discern norms – different kinds of “goods”. We believe these norms are recognised to varying degrees by everyone, thanks to God’s grace.

At the same time, Christians know that pursuit of goodness does not automatically please God; it can still lead us into sin if not done in faith (cf Rom 14:23) and love (cf 1 Cor 13).  Christians are traditionally conscious of the dangers of idolising such goods as reason, progress, beauty and pleasure – but the ascetic path isn’t for most of us (it certainly sounds like bad news for scholarship!).  We may say that believing in Jesus Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit is the answer – but we’ll still need to work it out in practice, using our minds.  So what might it look like to pursue what’s good without idolising particular aspects of goodness?

I believe it’s about balance. Jesus’ sinless life was fully human and did not eschew good things: he ate, drank, slept, reasoned, invented stories, socialised, laughed (no doubt), prioritised, righted wrongs, loved and trusted. His goodness clearly involved doing each of the above at the right time and in good balance with the others. His life was at least as full of challenges, trials and constraints as are ours; he was tempted in every way yet without sin.

Jesus wasn’t an academic, but we academics might benefit from thinking analytically about how his life balanced competing norms. For we live in the same created order, and like all humans, must navigate and negotiate among norms that are often in tension as we seek to do what’s best.  So let me briefly recap the norms covered in our series on good scholarship, asking what dangers of idolatry lie in each.  I hope this will help illuminate what it might mean to learn from Jesus in our academic work, and to seek that all-round goodness known in biblical Hebrew as shalom.

  • Logicality: All disciplines rely on good reasoning, but rationalism may easily become an idol. We should also respect the intuitive, imaginative and other thought processes on which ideas depend, and have compassion in our dialogue and debates.
  • Progress: The good of innovation drives academia, and is also surely an idol of Western culture. Genesis 1 and 2 do clearly envisage a history of civilisation and development – so can we balance progress against such goods as contentment and wisdom?
  • Clarity is worth a lot in scholarly communication but may need weighing against economy of words, the value of humour, etc.
  • Social norms and influences are perhaps more often demonised than idolised in academia. Although such norms vary among cultures, we pay the price when they are ignored in our computer systems, architecture, pedagogy – to name but a few areas.
  • Economic idolatry is notoriously damaging in any sphere of life. But getting value for money rightly drives a lot of what we do, as do time-efficiency, resource-use efficiency and wise choices in general.
  • Harmony: There are obstacles to getting much excitement or beauty into our publications, but we should take them seriously in external outputs – and inject them into conferences!
  • Justice: perhaps too often relegated to ethics committees!  In pursuing righteousness, we might consider what is owed to all kinds of parties: organisations and animals as well as fellow-humans.
  • Generosity, and its endpoint in self-sacrifice, is sometimes held up as the central Christian virtue. But it can’t stand alone, and it can even jeopardise other norms. Read about the faithful godly αγαπη love extolled by Paul in 1 Cor 13 and see how it enriches all kinds of goodness!
  • Faith encompasses many kinds of conviction. In its special Christian sense of ‘right relationship with God’ faith is, of course, the key to true goodness. But even this faith must be revealed in other virtues, as James’ letter reminds us.

What do you think? In what ways are these norms part of your work?

_____________

* Our list was based on Herman Dooyeweerd’s framework of modal aspects, in which characteristic norms are supposed to pertain to all aspects from the analytical aspect onwards.  It isn’t supposed to be an exhaustive list of virtues, simply to give good coverage to the breadth of human experience. Some virtues, like truth and love, cut across these categories; others may be related to ones we’ve covered (e.g. hope relates to faith).

Scholarship in good faith

In this post I want to show how faith lies at the heart of scholarship – perhaps in some ways that we hadn’t thought of before. I also want to explain why faith comes as the final virtue in our series ‘What is good scholarship?

Faith is a scholarly virtue at many levels.  First, we must have faith in the way the world is: trust in the underlying consistency of whatever we’re investigating.  Generations of natural scientists have conceived of ‘the laws of nature’ to justify their predictions and explain the accuracy of their inferences about the world.  ‘Law’ language may be falling out of favour now, but the so-called problem of induction remains, and scientists of all religious positions evidently practise what we might call ‘natural faith’.  And I’m convinced that every field of academic study assumes some kind of predictability or regularity in its subject matter: some underlying motifs, elements or tendencies that recur, so that what we write in our PhDs and papers will be relevant outside the immediate context in which we came up with it.

Library cartoonThen, of course, we need faith in our own minds.  We rely on our memories.  We seize upon problems believing we can solve them.  We immerse ourselves in the literature expecting to abstract something valuable and new from it. This leads on to the next category: faith in other people.

Like any communal enterprise, scholarship depends upon its practitioners trusting each other. If we suspected our peers and colleagues of making things up, we’d change career – but somehow the educational process by which we become scholars instills an admirable degree of professional honesty. We also need to trust in our interpretations of what others have written.Then we have faith that our area of study is worth our devotion.  This could be articulated in a profoundly personal way by every scholar, especially those whose work doesn’t seem likely to have consequences for daily life.  Why do people devote themselves to philosophyastronomyarchaeology or musicology?  Sometimes we may believe our discoveries could change the world, but often we don’t – and still less do some of our friends and family!

Christian faith in scholarship?

That’s a list of different kinds of faith in scholarship, hopefully none too controversial. But I’ve missed one, of course. As a Christian, I’m not going to forget the centrality of faith in God. We’ve had nine articles now about “good scholarship” but only occasional reference to classical Christian virtues (e.g. on social virtues, and generosity). Why this reticence?

The FiSch team believes that our ultimate faith commitments change our world.  For me, living in the story where Jesus Christ reveals how this world is meant to be the Kingdom of God colours everything.  Everything I wrote above – about faith in the world, myself, other people and my calling – is qualified by my conviction that it is God’s world, God’s creatures and God’s callings I’m thinking about – those of the transcendent God revealed in Jesus Christ.  For people living in other big stories, like a secular humanist one, ‘faith’ no doubt feels very different.  The scandal of Christianity is the claim that without knowing Jesus as Lord, people’s search for ultimate meaning fixates on something created, which ultimately cannot satisfy the demand placed upon it. And the focus of one’s faith ends up shaping not just one’s worldview but also behaviour – and hence other people’s lives too. The kind of faith we have in scholarship really matters!

How this works out needs exploring at greater length, and a final post in this series will suggest some echoes of faith in the other scholarly virtues we’ve looked at.

Hendrik Witbooi – Inspiring Soldier

Theme

In his famous sermon on the mount, Jesus calls his disciples to live in a radically new way. He challenges all his followers to love their enemies. This can be very difficult for sinful human beings who are prone to hatred, idolatry and evil thoughts. Hendrik Witbooi was a black African general who loved his enemies. He treated his German enemies with amazing mercy when they were destroying Hendrik's tribe. He loved his enemies in a war zone.

Scripture

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven.

Matthew 5:44

Story

Hendrik Witbooi was a king of the Nama people and he lived in the part of Africa we now call Namibia. His face is portrayed on the obverse of all Namibian dollar banknotes. He served God as a general of the Nama army when his tribe was attacked by the German army.

In the war (1904-1905) Hendrik went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the safety of German non-combatants, women and children. This deeply Christian man made sure that ‘enemy’ civilians were completely unharmed. His soldiers escorted German women, children and farmers back to the German lines. He treated his prisoners with the utmost respect because he believed that all people are created in the image and likeness of God.

His behaviour in the war can be contrasted with the German General Lothar von Trotha (1848-1920) who defeated the Herero (another African tribe) army at the battle of Waterburg. Callously von Trotha drove the Hereros into the desert of Omahake where many of the Herero combatants died of thirst.

The German soldiers were ordered to poison all the water-holes in the region and they were ordered to take no prisoners and to do nothing for the remaining women and children. Many of them were either shot or abandoned in the desert. The Herero population, which in 1904 had numbered about 80,000 people, had been reduced to fewer than 20,000 one year later. Von Trotha referred to the Nama and Hereros tribes as 'cattle' or 'stock'! He ordered his soldiers to kill 'enemy' women and children. Many of the Nama tribe were also slaughtered by the German army.

Again it is very instructive to compare and contrast two soldiers. The black, African general Hendrik Witbooi followed the Lord Jesus and the white, German general Von Trotha did not.

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