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Russell Moore: Southern Baptists feel the horror ‘more viscerally’

Kenneth and Irene Hernandez pay their respects as they visit a makeshift memorial with crosses placed near the scene of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, on Nov. 6, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A man opened fire inside the church in the small South Texas community on Sunday, killing and wounding many. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

(RNS) — The mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, hit close to home for Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

First Baptist is part of the SBC.


RELATED: 26 killed in church attack in Texas’ deadliest mass shooting


After the gunman Sunday (Nov. 5) took the lives of 26 churchgoers between the ages of 18 months and 77 years old, Moore was called upon to react as the president of the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. But he also felt the horror of it as a fellow Baptist.

“There’s a kind of personalization of this shooting in an extraordinary way with people who are Baptist churchgoers because we can imagine being in the very same situation as those who were so wickedly killed,” he said.

“I think there’s a great familiarity with the rhythm of a worship service which makes, for churchgoers, the horror of this even more viscerally felt.”

Moore talked to RNS about Southern Baptists’ responses to the killings, believers’ varying opinions about gun control and how churches remain resilient in the face of such tragedy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Russell Moore at the Washington offices of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

How are you seeing Southern Baptists respond to this tragedy? There are two SBC groups in Texas — are they coming together to rally around this church?

They really are, yes, and they have in several other instances in recent days — (Hurricane) Harvey in Houston also drew them together. I see Southern Baptists all over the country in solidarity with First Baptist Sutherland Springs. I think that every Southern Baptist church I know of will be having a special time of prayer this Sunday, if not before.

I think that many churchgoers are reflecting today on our vulnerability and on the wickedness that exists in the world around us. We know that from the Scriptures, but I think it’s especially felt this week.


RELATED: Local Christians, and some Muslims, surround a grieving town with love


We’ve heard many people offer their thoughts and prayers. Are prayers enough? What action can Christians take to make these tragedies less likely to occur?

I think there is a sense in which some of these calls for specific, immediate legislative action ironically serve the very purpose that those promoting them accuse those asking for thoughts and prayers of doing, which is a cathartic sort of immediate reaction, whether or not that actually solves the problem.

When we’re looking at this horrific evil, Christians can disagree about what specific policies ought to be enacted. What I don’t see is Christians debating whether or not shootings are right or wrong. We stand together on that. Where we have differences is what we think will work in terms of curtailing that, and I think that’s a prudential discussion and Christians are going to going to end up in different places on that.

Does the SBC have a stance on gun control?

No, there hasn’t been a resolution on that.

Are Southern Baptists divided on the necessity of gun control and, if so, do you expect a shift in some views after some of their own have been killed?

Whatever differences people have over gun control are not differences over what the Bible does or does not say. They’re differences over more prudential matters about how to address a specific problem and what’s constitutional and what’s not. I don’t expect that that will change much.

Some Christians consider gun control a “pro-life” issue. The SBC is strongly pro-life. Do you see gun control as a pro-life issue?

No, because in the abortion debate, one side is depersonalizing the victims as not having human rights. That’s not what’s happening here. No one is advocating violence and shooting. People are disagreeing about what means are constitutional or effective. That’s a very different conversation.


RELATED: Gun massacres: Why aren’t more churches telling the truth? (COMMENTARY)


As the person directing public policy for Southern Baptists, do you have a stance on gun control?

I, personally, have a stance in that I don’t think that any gun control measure that I’ve seen would be effective in addressing these issues.

I hold to conservative views on the Second Amendment, but I don’t hold to my views here in the way that I would something clearly revealed in Scriptures. I certainly don’t hold to those things the way that I would the fundamentals of Christian doctrine and ethics, which is why I have very close co-laborers in Christ who are proponents of gun control. They haven’t persuaded me of that, but I don’t see them as being on another “side.” We both are looking toward the same goal.

Do you support training Southern Baptists to use guns, if necessary, in their churches?

Well, I wouldn’t call for some sort of vigilante justice, but I haven’t heard anyone who is.

Churches are considering whether or not their security plans are well thought-out. I think that’s a wise conversation to have. Every church I’ve ever been a part of has always had a security team — usually, those who are police officers or are retired police officers who understand and know what security contingencies ought to be.

No series of plans, of course, can rule out something horrible happening, but a congregation is wise to think through how they ought to do everything they can to keep people safe.


RELATED: Churches look to tighten security, even arm congregants, after Texas shooting


You wrote in The Washington Post that as long as Christianity has been around, people have tried to terrorize worshippers — and they never succeed. Why?

Those who would try to terrorize churches out of existence don’t know why people are in church to begin with. People aren’t drawn to the church because the church will provide them physical invulnerability. People come to the church because they’re drawn to Christ — to Christ crucified. So the idea that one could wipe out the church by threatening suffering just fundamentally misunderstands Christianity.

That’s one of the reasons Christianity has not only bounced back from terrorist actions against it throughout history, but thrived in those situations. The church tends to whither when the church is contented with the world around it and becomes just like the world around it.

The church’s understanding of safety is different than that of the terrorist who would try to wipe us out. Martin Luther said the cross is the safest of all things, and I think that sums up well a Christian understanding of suffering.

Any final encouragement for the folks at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs who are dealing with this tragedy and other Christians around the country who may be feeling fearful or angry this has happened again in the country?

I think that everyone I have talked to — church leaders and pastors and others —  are all thinking in what I think is the right direction, which is to stand together with those at First Baptist. Some of them in Texas seek to minister to them directly; others around the country stand with them in prayer. And then congregations are thinking through what they would do if, in their community, God forbid, something horrible happened.

This is a moment where the Church — the big “C” Church of Christians — are standing united. I think that’s a sad reality that has driven us to this, but I think it’s a reminder of the hope that we have of life that overcomes death.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

45 Comments

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  • A bunch random thoughts…

    Why am I reminded of William westmoreland’s dictum that the Vietnamese don’t feel pain and suffering the way “we” do?

    I wonder how Moore feels about he pain gay people have felt on the continuing attacks on us, our families, our marriages, and our participation in society, that his church provides free of charge? Only when his people are attacked, or at least, seen as being attacked, does empathy seem to come out. One side of the argument is indeed being depersonalized, Mr. Moore. And one side is doing the depersonalization.

    But funny enough, he still doesn’t think gun control will work, even though we are the only civilized nation where this sort of thing happens on a regular basis. Maybe if we actually tried gun control, liketaking the ability to buy AR15’s off the open market?

    Interesting that he thinks this is someone trying to “terrorize” Christians, like this was the Middle East or something. It amazes me that the first place he goes is poor persecuted Christians. Does that mean the orlando shooter was trying to terrorize gay people? or the man who attacked the Sikh temple several years ago was trying to terrorize Sikhs? Why is it only terrorizing Christians when it happens to them, but not terrorizing the entire citizenry when our government, with the backing of Mr. Moore, does nothing to enact some sort of gun control on a national basis?

  • It really is sad that innocents were killed, and in church. I wonder how many supported the right to own guns.

    We won’t have any kind of effective gun control in this country until some family members of pro-gun Representatives and Senators are killed by gunmen.

  • I’m not convinced that “more viscerally” is either appropriate or accurate as an observation with respect to this event.

  • I suspect Moore and many Southern Baptists will feel pain…not because of any mass shooting, they haven’t cared about those recently…They will be more concerned about the trans-woman winning a Virginia Assembly seat in rural Virginia today. Now that is real pain for a Levitican !!

  • Actually from reading previous comments that I could find on Vegas, Charleston, Orlando and Newtown, I thought he showed the greatest empathy towards the gay community’s reactions immediately afterwards that shooting.

  • Back in the day of my grandfather & his twin both SBC preachers mixing religion & politics was essentially a sin. Today it is a requirement for all SBC members to mix extremist politics & Calvinism. Moore’s remarks expose their heresy.

  • I wasn’t aware of it. Moore rarely says anything that impresses me, at least when I come across them. Thanks.

  • I find two things especially striking here. First, the candid acknowledgment of in-group bias–in this case, favoritism toward a fellow Southern Baptist group. Southern Baptists, like other conservatively religious groups, are high on this bias. Second, the absence of any allusion to theodicy–the problem of justifying an omniscient and loving god in the face of tragedy and suffering. I’m not surprised that Moore is reluctant to support gun-safety efforts, given that he almost lost his job when he (and Albert Mohler) strongly recommended that Southern Baptists not vote for Trump. “Leaders” of religious groups are constrained to significant degrees by the attitudes of the groups’ members.

  • I have spent a lifetime thinking about the gun control issue and I keep coming down on the side of freedom. I have never been interested much in guns and yet ironically found myself around them most of my life. My perspective is a blend of respect for law, love of freedom, pragmatic analysis and Christian Realism. We live in a fallen world that we will never fix this side of heaven. As much as we should yearn for public safety, we should not lose sight of the situation in which we now find ourselves. There are well over 300 million guns in this country. The only remotely effective “cure” to mass shootings – to round up all the semi-auto rifles and rifles from every home in the U.S. would be far worse than any disease stemming from gun offenses. As a former ATF inspector, I have interviewed hundreds of gun dealers. Contrary to the frequent media depictions of them, I found them to be fundamentally decent people. The anti-gun views I went in to ATF with melted away over my federal career as I could see what worked (gun tracing system) and what did not (assault weapon ban) As decent and patriotic gun enthusiasts are, they are also not shrinking violets. They will not take kindly to government agents taking their guns – to the point of likely prompting violence, secession attempts or even some sort of civil war. Moore correctly points out that none of the gun control proposals of recent years would have much if any effect on gun violence. The studies I’ve seen would favor more guns in well-trained hands rather than fewer or the restrictions that Bloomberg and others would advocate. This Southern Baptist PK has not seen any ways to curb gun violence short of locking up the offenders of current well-enforced gun laws.

  • Apart from this great Sutherland church tragedy and the Las Vegas tragedy, the number of mass shootings that take place at regular intervals across the country is increasing. To compound this tragedy, churches have played no definitive role in controlling gun violence. Even a person of position like Moore condones the ownership of guns when he and all religious leaders in the United States ought to appeal to the government through their State senators and lawmakers to rescind the Second Amendment that was framed in the early days of the American revolution when Americans had to defend themselves against French, Spanish and British colonizers as well as the native Indians whose lands they had forcefully acquired. Unfortunately, members of the Baptist, Methodist, Catholic or any other faith seem to be possessed and influenced by the demons of the NRA and are unable to speak for themselves. It is time church leaders of whatever denomination demand the rescinding of the Second Amendment and appeal to the Trump administration to ban the possession of weapons of any kind, particularly assault weapons which to my mind is a pipe dream. Would church leaders condone the killing of innocent people or would they prefer to end this slaughter? They ought not to encourage gun ownership in their congregation. They should avoid the insane and asinine logic of Donald Trump who said that more people would have been killed had it not been for another person with a gun. This is Trump’s typical cowboy logic.

  • God wills it. God wants it. Who are they to question god?

    Moore talks a good game about constitutional rights and the Supreme Court, BUt only when it comes to his own agenda.

  • What we need to find is a way of keeping guns out of the hands of people so mentally ill that they would commit a mass shooting. I just don’t know what that is yet, nor do I expect it would be any one single preventive measure.

  • “The only remotely effective “cure” to mass shootings – to round up all the semi-auto rifles and rifles from every home in the U.S. would be far worse than any disease stemming from gun offenses.”

    Australia did it. It seemed to work. No mass shootings in 20 years. And personally, I think that a few gun. It’s being inconvenienced slightly is a small price to pay for the rest of us being able to go to church, attend a concert, or pend an evening out with friends without worrying about being slaughtered.

    Interesting though. The gun nuts want to threaten a civil war and violence if they don’t get their way? Do you read what you write? These are people who would revolt against their government— a losing proposition, by the way— destroy our government and way of life, and kill innocent civilians, not that that isn’t a problem right now.

    And you say the answer is to let them have as many guns of whatever type as they wish?

  • Years ago a study was conducted to determine the feasibility of rounding up all the guns in Cook County, IL – the most populous Chicagoland county. They found that it was logistically impossible to accomplish. Now multiple those efforts by 3,141 to expand such an operation throughout the U.S. Hillary Clinton, a strident gun control advocate, only won 487 of those counties. No one needs to threaten anything now but only a fool could fail to see the “unintended consequences.” It never ceases to amaze me how far big government types are inclined to go even when blatant tyranny and oppression is the result. But if Oakland, CA is your hometown, I am not terribly surprised that you might fail to understand that people in the more remote areas of the country – even the quasi suburban periphery – can expect a 20 – 30 minute delay in police/sheriff on-site response (assuming they were not already called out to the opposite end of the county). People have a fundamental natural right to self-protection. Period. Any new ban or control initiative would place 95% of the burden on people who are presently abiding by the law. For example, do you seriously believe that your local criminal is going to consult 18 U.S.C. 922(a)(6) or 924(a)(1)(A) to check whether the straw purchase they are about to make is illegal? Let’s keep and enforce the gun laws that we have. Let’s even throw more federal money into the enforcement effort. But – please – let us dispense with the ridiculous and unfeasible.

  • “ As decent and patriotic gun enthusiasts are, they are also not shrinking violets. They will not take kindly to government agents taking their guns – to the point of likely prompting violence, secession attempts or even some sort of civil war. Moore correctly points out that none of the gun control proposals of recent years would have much if any effect on gun violence.“

    Question. In your worst case scenario would the victims be innocent?
    I would agree with a statement that says no measure will have immediate effect. Whatever could be done now needs to be looked at as having the ability to reverse the trend of mass shootings. Where there is a increase in the frequency of mass killings and a increase in the numbers killed there is a cause. One decision that can be made is a decision to address causes and reduce the numbers. Another decision that can be made is increase gun sales and manage the increase in numbers by having people shooting back. The cause is not too few guns, be honest about that.

  • So, do they need assault rifles and a hundred guns to accomplish all that self defense, especially out in the rural areas where crime is so rampant.

    Look. You just don’t want to be inconvenienced by decent gun control. That’s it. The lives of your fellow countrymen are just not worth it to you.

    I disagree.

    We regulate the possession and use of cars. Why not guns? We are the only civilized co7ntry in the world that doesn’t have gun control and does have mass murderers of this type occurring all of the time. Every single day on this country, there is a murder of three or more people with a handgun.

    Let,s try gun control first. Rather than claim it isn’t going to work.

  • well, here goes.. trying to jump into this and land on middle ground…

    In my humble opinion, if we are ever going to find workable common ground on this issue, both sides will need to back off the absolutist claims. Cars are a nearly necessary privilege, not a foundational right written into the very core of our society. The right to bear arms is. As with every other right in the Bill of Rights, the right to bear arms is not absolute and must necessarily be balanced against the other rights in the Constitution.

    That said, there is a very fine line between “inconvenience” and “ban” or removing a right. That line is not a theoretical issue for many members of minority groups in the US. We see those threats every day and we rely on our constitutional rights (and the case law that evolved from them) to mitigate those threats. “There are four boxes to be used in the defense of liberty: soap, ballot, jury and ammo. Please use in that order.”

    Gun owners legitimately fear most talk of control or individually minor inconveniences because that line is so very thin. And let’s be honest, neither side of this has a particularly good track record of being willing to compromise.

    When pro-gun folks mindlessly repeat “shall not be infringed,” without regard to obvious negative impacts on our society, the anti-gun folks legitimately fear that nothing will done to mitigate those negatives. At the same time, when anti-gun folks mindlessly dismiss any want for firearms without regard to an obvious right given in the Constitution, the pro-gun folks legitimately fear that right may be taken away.

    If we want to reduce the negative societal impacts of gun ownership to society, we have to start by acknowledging that gun ownership is an integral right in our society.

  • “Where we have differences is what we think will work in terms of curtailing that, and I think that’s a prudential discussion and Christians are going to going to end up in different places on that.”

    If curtailing means reducing, just for the record I would like to know which measure Mr Moore supports in terms of curtailing. I would like to join him and help convince others that the measure he supports will curtail mass killing. When proven right I would nominate him for a position of great influence…

  • Ben will never acknowledge your last line there, because doing so automatically means that America will never actually go the Australian route.

  • Here is what that is going to first sound like if it ever gets as far as your last statement.

    I don’t want to agree with any of those gun control people. Their a bunch of wacky liberals who only eat carrots and beans and wear socks with sandals in the winter time…but hey, same o same o ain’t workin…

    If that kind of first approach steps on your toes you might want to go out and buy a decent pair of shoes if you want to make any progress on some sort of gun control. Just sayin.

  • Why on earth would ANYONE wear socks with sandals? That’s just wrong, man.

    If we don’t make an effort to acknowledge both sides of this, then we practically guarantee continuing down this path of piecemeal work arounds that steadily fail to address the real negative impacts of firearms in society… and steadily erode 2A until there is nothing left. Both sides loose. I don’t want that.

  • I respect Ben and agree with him on most issues. We may have different perspectives on 2A but I am confident we can have a reasonable discussion.

  • Your points are quite good, but your argument contains one, large glaring error, or rather, a large, glaring straw man.
    I don’t know of a single person who advocates gun control who also wants to ban firearms entirely. There might be a few people who do, but I don’t know who they are. If I had one wish, it would be that every gun, cannon, missile, and bomb on the planet would disappear. But I don’t have any wishes, let alone one.
    I have no problem with firearms, though I don’t want them anywhere near me or people I love. I have a problem with a complete lack of control over them. Australia banned many guns 20 years ago, and regulate what they do allow. They don’t have our problem, but they still have guns. What they don’t have are mass murders like Texas, Orlando and Las Vegas. What they don’t have is what we have: every single days of the year, there is at least one multiple murder of at least three people with a gun.
    There is an old joke. “How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris?” “No one knows. It has never been tried.”
    How much Federal law will be required to control guns in the US? No one knows. It’s never been tried. Chicago has gun control, true. but you can trot right over to Indiana, which has none.

  • I know, right! It’s the kind of thing that makes a man want to get a right to carry permit and walk down the street with a AK strapped on his shoulder.

    I really liked your comment, I thought it was spot on.

  • Given the nature of humans, yes when people are touched personally by an event they may be inclined to view things differently than before, and yes, politicians being what they are, they would likely use their influence to that end. But I would make the argument in a different way than in the manner you chose. Though many would agree with you that the succinct blunt approach is the only way to give others pause.

  • I particularly wanted to be blunt, since I think bluntness *sometimes* carries more impact and more info than more “measured” or gentle comment.

    Who was that fellow who worked for the Acting President whose views changed after he was shot? The name Brady is resonating in my mind.

  • I wish I could remember the term used for what I am about to describe but let’s run with Pre-incident Online Investigative Task Force. Currently, these task forces attempt to survey the internet for individuals or groups that exhibit a number of red flags. I think they consist of people from multiple disciplines and use algorithms to data mine for these flags. We need more people and resources invested in this. That is something that the federal government can and should take the lead in empowering.

  • A perfectly understandable response on his part, though your snarky description of Reagan does not aid your argument in any scholastic sense.

  • Since we have a mass shooter who was not hindered by a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence statute, a dishonorable discharge from the military statute and an involuntary commitment to a mental institution statute, why on earth do you think that the government will effectively stop a future mass shooter on the basis of another new gun control law? They have been tryingfor decades now to stick their fingers in the dike of the NICS background check system but there are too many holes. Your ideal government sounds like something dreamt up by Aldous Huxley – a utopia gone wrong. Our society has a moral disease that would be substantially impacted only by widespread changes in our mores. What world view doubts the creativity and innovation of the highly motivated criminal mind? If they want to kill people, they will surely find a way. Technological developments in the near future will make this even harder. The new ISIS threat: drones. The control freaks just don’t get it. And no intelligent 2nd Amendment advocate believes that the control freaks will stop with AR-15s. Semi-auto pistols will follow, then large bore shotguns. Faith Hill will never understand this. The key question for any legislation should always be 1) will this be effective in reducing gun violence and how, and 2) How much will 2nd Amendment rights be limited; what burdens will be placed on legal gun owners and purchasers? In other words, will new legislation have the effect of criminalizing non-violent citizens while barely making a dent in the gun violence problem? Many patriotic Americans may be willing to give up some convenience but not if it merely expands the definition of “criminal” to include them.

  • May I ask what “candid acknowledgment of in-group bias–in this case, favoritism toward a fellow Southern Baptist group” are you speaking of? And do you not yourself acknowledge bias? Everyone has some bias. On this article we are discussing the particular impact on Southern Baptists. That’s in the title. So many lives lost…lives that are essentially extended church family. Heartache and outrage should surprise no one.

  • I was referring to Moore’s saying that, “There’s a kind of personalization of this shooting in an extraordinary way with people who are Baptist churchgoers because we can imagine being in the very same situation as those who were so wickedly killed.” A researcher found that, since 1999, there have been more than 1,600 “deadly force incidents” in US houses of worship, including mosques, synagogues, and temples (http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/….). The situations in those houses of worship surely were similar to the situation in Sutherland Springs, but I wager that Southern Baptists experienced far less “heartache and outrage” in response to them. I cannot imagine a Quaker or a Unitarian-Universalist leader making a comment similar to Moore’s. Yes, we are all biased to some degree, but some of us—I am making no claims for myself—manage to include in our extended families persons who are far different from ourselves.

  • Slippery slope arguments. The gun control people want to take all our guns. Nope.

    What burdens will be placed on people who don’t give a crap about guns at all, but do want to be able to go to a concert or church or a night out and not have to worry about getting murdered By a legal gun owner?

    Three murders— as in three people being murdered at the same time by the same person— every single day of the year. Mass murders like Las Vegas and Texas and Orlando. And you are worried about being inconvenienced.

    Let’s try some actual gun control, and see what happens. Then you will have an argument,

  • I understand your contention that we should all experience grief in response to all lives lost. Perhaps this is some sort of extension of the multiculturalist equality argument. You tell me. But it is still ludicrous. A distinction without a difference. I have seen churches address with concern, compassion and prayer appropriate responses to many other attacks, including attacks on other houses of worship. But it is patently obvious that someone would not sense the same emotional impact for say a Christian church across the state whose members they have no connection with as they would for their own former synagogue which included a couple extended family members in the fatalities. I know you are going after Southern Baptists as if they are somehow indifferent or insensitive to the plight of folks unlike themselves. That has certainly not been my experience. I think that the person who may need to deal with their animus toward people may actually be you. Baptists know the Biblical injunction to care for their own – within “the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10) and have no reason to be ashamed of their focus even though their care continually advances far beyond their own affinity group.

  • After Katrina, certain police officers went door to door confiscating guns as part of an evacuation effort. Although federal law was amended in 2006 to prohibit gun confiscation during emergencies or major disasters, there is and always has been basis for this concern. Much of it has arisen from the statements of elected representatives and anti-gun lobbyists. So yes there is a basis. One gun control group – Coalition to Ban Handguns – changed its name in response to these fears. We live in a big country with plenty of violent crime. Overall – and contrary to your narrative – violent crime has been on the decline in recent decades. As for the Constitution, it really doesn’t matter whether a subset of Americans care about the 2nd Amendment – or the 1st, 4th or 5th for that matter. All these sections are there for a reason. The 2nd is there for self-protection whether that protection is sought against a criminal, terrorist or a tyrannical government. You may not care whether you have the capacity to properly protect yourself but millions of Americans do.

  • My last comment was in direct response to your stated opinions. I regulated guns for 15 years. What questions do you have more specifically about that? Or are you conceding the argument you are trying to make?

  • Below is the first verse of a prayer that can be found on The United Methodist Church site (http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/blogs-commentaries/post/how-can-this-be-a-prayer-following-a-church-shooting):

    “Gracious and loving God,
    we come before you today—heartbroken.
    We grieve whenever we hear of violence,
    over loss of life we can hardly comprehend.
    This time, it all happened in a church.
    How can this be?”

    And so, in your view, this testimony to grieving is ludicrous? I find the evident empathy deeply moving, evidence of a tradition that, more than many others, knows what it is truly to be a Christian. I also note that the final line here–“How can this be?”–along with the rest of the prayer, at least hints at the problem of theodicy. There are no easy answers here to human suffering.

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