CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

God in the Dock

May 27, 2012

OK, I’ve got a beef. Hopefully it is a biblical beef, or a God-given beef – if not, don’t even waste your time reading any further. But I would like to think I have some biblical warrant for this particular beef. It has been a long-standing concern which I have spoken to now and then, here and there.

But here I will devote an entire article to it. So what’s my beef? It is this: It really does bother me (and presumably bothers God), when believers complain about something God has said or done, taking the high moral ground. They seem to think they are wiser and more moral than God.

There are so many examples of this. As one example, how many Christians have questioned or even jettisoned altogether the biblical doctrine of Hell, and God’s eternal punishment of the wicked? They say this is an unjust and immoral teaching. They reject God’s word and put themselves up as an authority on this issue.

They effectively are claiming to be in a superior position to decide on these sorts of issues than God is. They have the idea that they are on a higher moral plane to assess these matters. They seem to think that they are better placed to run the universe than God is.

They actually think they can advise God on this, and see no problem in telling him he happens to be wrong here. In their disagreement with, and rejection of, these clear teachings, they are in fact calling God a liar. They come to correct the Almighty, and let him know how things ought to be done.

Or consider another example. Recently I have been debating the issue of the death penalty. I have written a number of articles on this, showing how God ordained it and has never rescinded it. It is part of his will for the state to maintain justice and punish evil in a fallen world.

Yet no matter how much I make the biblical case for it, no matter how many passages I appeal to, no matter how clearly this issue can be defended theologically, I still get Christians saying they just don’t like it. They insist that it is wrong – and by implication, God is wrong. They insist that Christians cannot support it.

So what are these Christians saying in these and other instances? They are in effect saying they think that they know better than God. They are saying that they are much more ethical than God is. They are saying that God got it wrong, and they are here to straighten him out.

What we have is mere men – no matter how well intentioned – who are sitting in judgment on God. They are pronouncing judgment on him as his judge and jury. They are seeking to straighten God out, and let him know that he has to get with the times. They really do consider themselves to be much more moral and smarter than God.

To be honest I consider this to be nothing more than rank unbelief. It is blatant idolatry. It is perverted human arrogance. It is even blasphemy. They have the gall to claim that God is just not as wise, or as compassionate, or as moral, or as good as they are.

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Thus they have put God in the dock. That phrase may be familiar to some of you. It is the title of both an essay and a book by C. S. Lewis. The book appeared in 1970 (Eerdmans) and contains a great collection of nearly 50 essays by this great Christian writer and apologist.

In his brief essay with this title he speaks to how we have totally turned our relationship to God on its head: “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.”

It is absolutely incredible that this is even happening. Of course we expect pagans to be doing this. But what is even more heinous and abhorrent is the fact that so many Christians are doing this as well. They are putting God in the dock and judging him for what he has said or what he has done. What utter arrogance and foolishness!

Who do these believers think they are? They have obviously long ago abandoned biblical authority. They have obviously long ago stopped even reading their Bibles. If they were still reading the Scriptures, they would be aware of important texts dealing with this inversion perversion.

Consider simply one biblical image here, that of the potter and the clay. This is found in various places throughout Scripture, eg. Isaiah 45:9-11, 64:8, and Jeremiah 18:1-11. Let me here focus on two other such passages. Consider Isaiah 29:16:

You turn things upside down,
as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!
Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it,
“You did not make me”?
Can the pot say to the potter,
“You know nothing”?

These believers are certainly turning things upside down. And are these believers not also aware of what Paul wrote in Romans 9:20-21? “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”

James Montgomery Boice offers the following commentary on this passage: “You and I are mere men and women set over against the God who made not only us but all things. It is ludicrous for creatures as small, ignorant, impotent, and sinful as we are to question the propriety of God’s moral acts. We may not understand what God is doing in any particular case. In fact, most of the time we will not, because, ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord’ (Isa 55:8). We can ask God to explain what he is doing, if he will. But for us to suggest that he is wrong in what he does is patently absurd.”

And John Stott offers these wise words on this text: “Paul is not censuring someone who asks sincerely perplexed questions, but rather someone who ‘quarrels’ with God, who talks back (20) or answers back (RSV). Such a person manifests a reprehensible spirit of rebellion against God, a refusal to let God be God and acknowledge his or her true status as creature and sinner. Instead of such presumption we need, like Moses, to keep our distance, take off our shoes in recognition of the holy ground on which we stand, and even hide our face from him. Similarly, we need, like Job, to put our hand over our mouth, confess that we tend to speak things we do not understand, despise ourselves, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Exactly right. But sadly so many of these Christians lack the humility and sense to recognise who they are: mere creatures, and not the Creator. They are mere sinners, and not the Holy King of Kings. But in sitting in judgment over God, these brazen believers are in fact seeking to displace God, and elevate themselves in his place.

What sheer arrogance and impudence. What contemptuous idolatry. What ugly rebellion. God will always be God – and the sooner we recognise that, the better. As Stott says, sure, there is a place for honest questioning. But to claim that we are somehow more moral, or wiser, or more compassionate, or more loving, or more just than God is, is the height of gross folly, sinful autonomy, and impudent pride.

That then is my beef. It certainly may well be a heavenly concern as well. These believers who put God in the dock need to repent, and put themselves back in the dock, and let God question and judge them. As Yahweh said to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?  Let him who accuses God answer him!” (Job 40:2)

We can shake our fists all we like to now, and question his wisdom, judge his kindness, reject his Word, despise his sovereignty, and doubt his morality. But one day we will all stand before him. Then all of our puny and pathetic mutterings and murmurings against him will be silenced instantly and forever.

We had better learn some of these lessons now.

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33 Responses to God in the Dock

  • It is clear to see that people have fallen for the big lie, that is basically summed up as what Satan said to Eve, you shall be like gods. It is the attitude that we are the ones in control and thus have total say. That is why we are seeing so much sin being excused for, since we ultimately make up the rules and this is ours.
    Ian Nairn

  • Yes you hit the nail on the head Ian.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Not a quibble with your comments. Would like you to add to the list the issue of the the Tithe. Some would say that it is more godly to give “as the Spirit moves” rather than the God-ordained Tithe.

    On-ya Bill. As ever, you have come to the heart of the matter: “Eat of the Tree of Life, or the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”. We either accept the sovereign Law-Word of the reigning soveriegn Kind of the Universe, or we establish our own preferences, likes, feelings and sensitivities as the sovereign word. One is life, and the other is producing the death that God ordained: “they who hate Me, love death.”

    Lance A Box

  • The death penalty… can you link a biblical case for this please. I know OT law demanded it, but I would have thought Jesus addressed it with John 8:1-11.
    Matthew Pearson

  • Thanks Matthew

    Yes I can – rather easily in fact. I make the biblical case for capital punishment in various places, and address the John 8 passage as well. See here for example:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2007/10/11/on-capital-punishment-part-1/
    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2007/10/12/on-capital-punishment-part-2/
    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/11/is-it-ever-right-to-kill/

    Also see the comments under these articles for more on this.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The other comment Satan made to Eve was “Did God really say…?”

    I seems to me that many are still falling for the same line that God didn’t really mean what He said!

    Maybe that’s why many of those who are still falling for it don’t want to accept Genesis!

    Roger Birch

  • its an affront to common sense too. I wonder if these holier than thou Christians would be against Israel’s (only) execution of Eichmann the author of the holocaust? Or this monster that murdered a wife and two daughters during a home invasion and set the house on fire?

    http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20425748,00.html

    You going to let these people live and enjoy their lives, something their victims will never be able to do.

    Damien Spillane

  • Lance, I’m not sure about the Tithe as an example of what Bill is talking about here.

    The NT doesn’t specifically re-instate the tithe, it talks about offerings and gifts, so it isn’t as clear as all the re-statements of the Ten Commandments.

    John Angelico

  • While I agree with the thrust of your article, we have a difference of opinion on the matter of the death penalty. In another conversation you said, “If someone actually believes they are wiser and more ethical than God, then yes they are idolaters – end of story.” I personally don’t know any Christian who has a problem with the death penalty who “actually believes that they are wiser and more ethical than God”. I know quite a lot who, like myself, believe that the matter is far from clear from scripture… which is quite a different thing.
    Tom Teale-Sinclair
    Sydney

  • Thanks Tom

    But again, as I have said elsewhere, we have been over this – and over this. Nothing new is emerging here. We don’t really need to belabour this time and time again. I have said clearly that those who object to the death penalty on moral grounds are at the end of the day objecting to God, since he is the one behind it. If you don’t like it, your complaint really is with him.

    To say God is being immoral to do x, y, or z is of course to say God himself is immoral. You cannot critique what he has done without critiquing who he is. One can simply set this out in logical form, using the syllogism:

    God decreed the destruction of the Canaanites.
    The destruction of the Canaanites was evil.
    Therefore, God’s decree was evil.

    And of course if God is guilty of evil activities, then he must be evil himself. You don’t get evil actions from non-evil actors. This becomes even clearer here:

    It is wrong to allow people to go to hell.
    God allows people to go to hell.
    Therefore God is wrong.

    Or in this case:
    The death penalty is immoral.
    God has ordained the death penalty.
    Therefore God is immoral

    Thus Christians are on very dangerous grounds here. When they sit in judgment on God’s activities, decrees and pronouncements, they are in reality sitting in judgment on God himself. I have said this plenty of times now, so it is getting a bit silly to keep having to repeat myself here. But if I am still not making myself clear here, I guess I will have to keep on trying!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Matthew,
    With respect, I would suggest that a careful exegesis of the John 8 passage does not support your strong, apparent belief that it negates capital punishment.

    For starters, as Bill alluded to in his article referenced above, the passage has textual issues meaning it should only be used with great caution when conflicting with – or negating – other biblical teachings.

    However, if I could add to the content of Bill’s article, then assuming the passage is original, consider the following:

    1. Technically, this was still OT as Jesus had not yet died and been resurrected so, to be sinless to die for us, He still had to comply with the Law.

    2. The question was posed as a trap (v6) and the trap was only valid if the Law DID apply. Had Jesus said the woman should not face death, He would have denied the Law (and hence sinned) but had He said she should die, the Pharisees could have used this against Him with the Roman authorities.

    3. There is clearly no doubt about the guilt of the woman, nor the Pharisees’ absence of interest in her as a person or in administering the Law itself as this required the same penalty for the man (Dt 22:23-24) – they were only interested in trapping Jesus.

    4. Rather than answer with a Yes or No, Jesus turned the tables, by responding to the Pharisees “he who is without sin, cast the first stone”. There are any number of sins the Pharisees were harbouring and so, realizing they had failed in their quest, one by one they left.

    5. It was only once Jesus had removed all the witnesses that He addressed the woman and the question of her sin by asking where her accusers were.

    6. So, why did Jesus wait until they had all gone before asking this question? The answer is found in the Law – and without the need to change it in any way.

    7. The Law required two or more witnesses to find someone guilty of a capital offense (Dt 17:6; cf Mt 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19; Heb 10:28). In the absence of any witnesses, then based purely on the Law, the woman could not be convicted.

    There’s a lot more to this passage than this, but suffice to say that Jesus merely applied the letter of the Law to let the woman go free without, crucially, changing a letter of it.

    There is nothing in this passage to support your view that Jesus negated the Law and furthermore, as I mentioned, to have done so at that stage would have very serious issues for our own salvation.

    Roger Birch

  • Yes quite so Roger. You offer some important points indeed.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Excellent post, Bill, especially the distinction between questions asked of God stemming from perplexity and those stemming from rebellion.
    Mark Henderson

  • Thanks Mark

    Yes we all have questions, and often legitimately so. And we can all have theological disagreements, debates and differences. So it is not my intent to squash theological debate here. But when it comes to things which God himself has ordained or instituted, then we have to be very careful indeed. Atheists of course do this all the time but believers need to be much more circumspect.

    At the end of the day, almost all criticisms of God and his ways boil down to moral or ethical complaints. That is, God is being judged for some moral failing or shortcoming. One simply needs to complete this sentence: “God is evil (bad, wrong, monstrous, an ogre, unethical, cruel, inhumane, unloving, unjust, etc.) because of (fill in the blank).”

    So God is said to be immoral because of taking out the Canaanites. Or God is said to be immoral because of the doctrine of election, or the doctrine of hell, or because of capital punishment, or what have you. These issues of course can be discussed and debated, but at the end of the day those complaining about these things are really questioning God and his moral integrity.

    That is what has concerned me for so long. It is this sitting in judgment on God, and assuming we are somehow more ethical, more just, or wiser than God in these areas, that is my main worry.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • In terms of the high moral ground, it is impossible to get higher than God, being a mysterious abstract concept of “the highest”. Therefore until the Higgs Bosun particle (dubbed “The God particle”) is isolated and proved by the Large Hadron Collider, then scientists must, by their own discipline, suspend their disbelief in God.

    I too have a beef with someone like Tony Blair, former New Labour prime minister in the UK who, during his premiership allowed his press agent to say to the world “we don’t do God” but upon stepping down immediately became a catholic and had the timerity to attempt to pressure the Pope to modernise the tradition of the catholic faith and change its stance on homosexuality, in other words changing it to suit him. If you don’t like a faith as it is then join a different faith. Tony Blair is everywhere – having made a lucrative career as a Middle East “Peace Envoy”, an informal adviser to the US President on the presidential election process, and guest speaker at international investment meetings. Thus influential people are putting out negative indicators of God.

    At this time of marking Pentecost we can only hope that the Holy Spirit will come down upon us, particularly those Christians who have let go their faith. Let us hope that they find the peace of God that surpasses understanding.

    Rachel Smith

  • Its a justifiable beef Bill. Man will never be able to tag God with being evil or making a mistake…no matter how well we seem to think we understand a situation. God is and always will be righteous, just and holy.

    The Scriptures are overwhelmingly clear on the matter of capital punishment being God ordained. People need to look past their soulish emotions to understand that if God instituted it, He did so for righteous and holy reasons.

    Once I saw the scriptures on this subject I held to them changing my opinion. It’s what Christians do: allow God’s Word to change them, not the other way round.

    Dorian Ballard

  • Congratulations Bill for an excellent article. The attitude you complain of is, sadly, widespread among Christians today. Another Scripture that is helpful in rebutting such thinking is 1 Corinthians 4:6 where Paul cautions the Christians in Corinth ‘not to exceed what is written’. In other words, our Christian worldview is to be shaped by ‘what is written’, i.e. by Scripture, not by our own thoughts and ideas, no matter how clever or progressive we consider them to be. The danger is that those who disregard this warning ‘become arrogant’, imagining that they know better or even are more moral than God himself. The broader context of Paul’s words is the obligation that he and Apollos felt to be ‘stewards of the mysteries of God’ and especially that they be ‘found trustworthy’ in that solemn responsibility (1 Corinthians 4:1-2).
    Graeme Mitchell

  • Dear Bill,
    Theologically I perfectly agree with you. However, the most frequent objection to the death pennalty I have heard is that our courts are human courts and therefore subject to error and even corruption. I heard once, and I can’t remember the source, that on everage at least one innocent person was killed each year during the history of the USA. In Australia too, some innocent people served many years in goal because of miscarriage of judgement. Some of them would have been executed if the death penalty was still in vogue. I think for instance of Lindy Chamberlin.

    Joost Gemeren

  • Thanks Joost

    We have no credible cases in recent years of an innocent person being executed. We do however have many hundreds of cases of innocent persons killed by murderers who are repeat offenders. So if we are concerned about protecting innocent lives, we should favour capital punishment.

    Of course there is no perfect justice in a fallen world. To throw out the death penalty because it is not perfect is as helpful as saying we should throw out all laws, courts, judges and police, because we do not find perfection there either. Sure, there will always be errors, and we should work on tightening up things as much as is humanly possible. Simply taking the many stringent safeguards in place as found in OT law about capital punishment would make things even more foolproof here.

    But I will have to write a whole article on this sometime soon.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Oh Bill! Your beef is my beef! I taste your indignant expression. What do people think of our Creator, our Lord, our Saviour! He hears and is jealous for His Name. I was reminded of Malachi 3:13-18. Take comfort Bill from verses 16-18.
    Let us sing: “The zeal of God has consumed me”.
    Evangeline Rykes

  • Morally, it seems to me that there is a world of difference between “God, I don’t like this” and “God, you’re wrong”. The former expresses belief in God’s authority and sovereignty, while the latter challenges it.

    The story of Job offers a fascinating middle ground. At the climax, the suffering Job addresses God: “You owe me an answer”. The response? “Are you God?” And Job repents. Job never finds out the back-story behind his suffering, and yet his faith in God is renewed.

    Andrew White

  • Yes quite so Andrew.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I find it difficult to argue against your point about God’s words in Genesis, even though I would perhaps prefer mandatory life without parole but with possiblity to appeal based on new evidence in case a mistake has been made (if a genuine mistake had been made then we wouldn’t be violating God’s command in the long run anyway).

    However the point of my contributing to this discussion is to ask the sincere question: if God instituted capital punishment as you say in the Genesis passage, what do you make of the prior command: “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it”?

    David Stanhope

  • Thanks David

    The prohibition is one we still observe today. We certainly do not eat living animals, and the blood is normally drained before we do eat a killed animal. That the life is in the blood is a principle found throughout Scripture (eg. Lev. 17:11). Given its importance in salvation history (animal sacrifices leading up to the ultimate sacrifice of God’s son), it is an important stipulation. The prohibition on eating the lifeblood in animals is a sign of this importance of blood in the biblical scheme. And it ties in with the death penalty. The shedding of human blood is a capital crime deserving death.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,

    Yes God ordained capital punishment, but as you have previously pointed out, you needed more than one witness to bring about the sentence. It seems a glaring inconsistency to advocate for the death penalty on biblical grounds, but then conveniently overlook the witness requirement as stipulated in the bible. We cannot have it both ways – if we want the death penalty because “God says”, we also need to uphold the other side of the coin that at least two witnesses are required. In the USA for example, you do not need any witnesses; you simply need admissible evidence that establishes the elements of the offence to beyond reasonable doubt in the mind of the jury.

    Nicholas Davies

  • Thanks Nicholas

    But of course that objection does not negate the biblical teaching on this topic. It simply means that modern nations should seek to come closer to these biblical safeguards.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill, I agree wholeheartedly with this article (as I usually do) and share your beef except with the point about hell. You assume that some Christian’s objection to the common idea of hell is that they think it is immoral etc. and that God is wrong to punish people that way. However, my objection to the widespread view of hell is a purely biblical one. It’s not that I believe the bible doesn’t support the existence of hell, but that I don’t believe the bible supports the idea that people burn forever there. I believe the bible supports the fact that unbelievers and Satan himself will finally be destroyed forever. It’s interesting that satan’s conversation with Eve has come up a lot in this post yet most people conveniently forget Satan’s first lie ‘thou shall not surely die’. Surely if people live exist forever in hell than Satan was right and God is wrong.
    Luke Belik

  • Thanks Luke

    This is not really the place to go into this discussion, but historic Christianity has always affirmed the doctrine of endless punishment – fully on biblical grounds – and has always seen the teaching of annihilationism as a heretical view. So do I.

    And of course Satan was not right. Adam and Eve did die spiritually, and then died physically. So God was quite right. And the proof is that the Bible speaks of those who are now living as being “dead” in their trespasses and sins. So your clincher argument is no such thing, but unfortunately is just a logical fallacy in which the conclusion does not follow from the premises.

    And the future eternal suffering of the wicked is of course taught more clearly and consistently by Jesus than anyone else. So I beg to differ big time, but as I say, this is not the place to go back and forth on it. Although I have written on hell before, I may need to write a piece specifically on this error. My generic piece is here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/03/11/on-hell/

    And my piece on the twin error of universalism is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/03/12/against-universalism/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill another excellent article and I like Andrew am reminded of Job, especially chapter 38. Who is it that shall question the Creator of all things?

    Fred Merlo

  • Considering God has made a way out of hell where we all rightfully belong, I do not understand their objections to it, just follow the way and tell others to follow the way and you and them don’t have to go there. To argue against the reality of hell is like arguing against reality in general. Rather than deceiving yourself, submit to the truth and live.
    Something inside me also cringes a little when I read accounts in Joshua of the utter annihilation of tribes, children and all, but I know that I’ll find the answer when I get to heaven. I am 100% confident in the goodness and justice of God, in His purity and impartiality that these few incidences, unpalatable as they might appear can detract me from my faith in Him.
    “Knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” and that understanding includes that we don’t understand everything in this life.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • John Angelico, in regards to the Tithe and its place in New Testament Christianity, Gary North, in his book The Tithe and the Church, points out the origin of the Lord’s supper precedes the giving of the Law to Moses, and was instituted under Melchisedek, along with the Tithe. Chuck out the Tithe, and you chuck out communion.

    There is much said of the Tithe in the New Testament. It is not so much taught as assumed. However, Jesus taught the Tithe, Paul taught the Tithe, and if you don’t attribute Hebrews to Paul, the Book of Hebrews teaches the Tithe as a part of the Melchisedek priesthood – of which Jesus is the High Priest, to which the Tithe is given.

    With regards,

    Lance A Box

  • To continue the subject of the tithe, that is just where we start isn’t it?
    All we have is given by God to us as stewards, subowners so to speak. Many people give far more than the tithe. Like everything else, our careers, our families, so everything we have is His and if we trust and obey we will give or keep according to His instructions.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • Lance,
    I haven’t read Gary North’s book on the tithe and so haven’t seen his full justification regarding the Lord’s Supper. However, based on what is in Scripture, I would question whether the Lord’s Supper precedes the Mosiac Law even though the tithe clearly does.

    The passage in Genesis 14:18 merely states that Melchizedek brought out bread and wine and blessed Abram (as Abraham was called at that stage) before Abram gave him a tenth of everything. There is no reference, or even inference to the ‘bread and wine’ (where the word for ‘wine’ implies it is fermented) being any precursor to the Lord’s Supper, or any instructions to Abram to continue this practice. It is basically no more than offering hospitality by way of a meal.

    Furthermore, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, there is no mention of wine (despite what is commonly believed or even stated during communion). The reference is merely to ‘the cup’ in all the Synoptics coupled with “fruit of the vine” which in itself is not automatically ‘wine’ in the sense we would use the word.

    The setting for the Lord’s Supper was when Jesus and his disciples were eating the Passover. The Passover law in Ex 12:14-20 prohibited, during Passover week, the presence and use of seor (Ex 12:15), a word referring to yeast or any agent of fermentation. Furthermore, anything that contained any type of fermentation was forbidden (Ex 12:19; 13:7) as yeast or fermentation symbolized corruption and sin (cf. Mt 16:6,12; 1Co 5:7-8).

    As with my comments on John 8 earlier, I get nervous with any form of teaching that suggests Jesus broke any part of the Law because of its implications on our salvation.

    Whether tithing is still a NT requirement is a separate issue, but I’m not convinced you can use the argument that to throw out tithing also throws out the Lord’s Supper.

    Roger Birch

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