NARCISSISM NOTES #2–Do-It-Yourself Research Base on Abuse “Across All Theological Spectrums”

Narcissism Notes is a futuristguy blog series sparked by content in Chuck DeGroat’s book, When Narcissism Comes To Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse (InterVarsity Press; 2020). Book available as of March 17, 2020.

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Chuck DeGroat posted the above tweet this morning (February 28, 2020). So, it seemed like a good time to update my initial framework from 2016 on abuse case studies (see section 3, “The Grid of Background Factors” – and How Spiritual Abuse isn’t Found Only in One Kind of Theology) with the four-dimension research framework on abuse situations that I laid out yesterday.

I’m big on DIY — do it yourself. So, in this post, I’ll present select key cases for those interested in researching more, and explain my criteria behind those choices.

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The Base of Abuse Cases Available

Source: Twitter thread of February 28, 2020.

My working hypothesis is that every theological stream has susceptibilities toward abusers and enablement, and that forms of abuse show up across the theological range in four major dimensions:

1-Every THEOLOGICAL STREAM: Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Protestant (Reformed, Lutheran, Anabaptist); charismatic, evangelical, fundamental, liberal, Pentecostal, and progressive.

2-Every form of POLITY/AUTHORITY SYSTEM, whether denominational or associational: congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and franchise.

3-Every ORGANIZATIONAL SYSTEM TYPE: centralized / hierarchical (including multi-campus), decentralized / distributed (including flat-structure or informal network).

4-Both complementarian and egalitarian APPROACHES TO GENDER ISSUES in congregation, family, and community.

Three of the four dimensions I use came from my initial analysis in 2016. I added gender after Willow Creek. Many abuse cases have been documented in complementarian / patriarchal churches and ministries. But Willow Creek showed us how egalitarian theology can be misused to manipulate people who believe men and women should be considered with parity and equity in ministry.

We need to be aware of range of theologies and discern specific ways that what they consider their best distinctives can be co-opted & fail Jesus’ “do good plus do no harm” test (otherwise known as, The Golden Rule).

No theology is inerrant.

Any theology can be twisted.

No theology is fully armored against abuse.

A huge base of cases from different theologies is available, between personal narratives and organizational profiles posted by abuse survivors and news sources. I’ll select key do-it-yourself study cases from across those four dimensions (theology, polity, organizational system, gender parity approach). I’ll plan to post that set by this weekend. And by “cases,” I mean where there is substantial information, narration, documentation showing abuse.

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Tea Tasters, “Espresso Cases,” and System Spotlighters

Tea-Tasting and Fractals

Source: Section on Fractals and the “Espresso of the Thing.”

In college, I had a lot of international student friends. One of them was Gerry. He was from Singapore, and his father was a professional tea taster. Gerry gave a fascinating description of what these tea buyers do – and I’m sure I’ve got the number details wrong, but I’m pretty sure I have the essence of the story right.

Anyway, as Gerry shared it, the tea company sent his father into the tea fields to taste and grade samples made from various batches of leaves that had been harvest and prepared. He’d pour boiling water into a one-serving teapot that held enough tea to brew 10 servings. Then he’d cover the teapot and let the leaves steep for 10 minutes.

The resulting tea would turn out so strong that Gerry’s dad usually only had to take one sip to know the quality of that lot of leaves.

  • Were these leaves high quality that could be used by themselves?
  • Were they medium quality to be mixed with other batches for a reasonable blend?
  • Could they be used alone or mixed for a low-grade tea?
  • Or were they completely unusable?

The answer was in the taste test from espresso of tea, as it were – or perhaps we could call it tea liqueur to remove the homage to coffee. If the macro tasted good – the brewed tea itself – that could only happen if the micro was good – the leaves, and vice versa. So, in fractals, macro and micro are intimately related. It’s just a matter of intensity or scale.

“Espresso Cases” — Red Flags and Black Flags

In terms of the cases I am selecting for this post, I want representative cases that are strong – “espresso of abuse,” as it were – where there is extensive information, narration, and documentation that gives a clear taste of the individual’s and/or institution’s level of toxicity. This would make it easier to identify specific “red flags” of warning for similar cases in that same category – and “black flags” to expect inevitable piracy of resources when the selected case has gone on so long that there is no doubt it will be abusive.

But how do we know what “extensive enough” is for a definitive case study in any category? And where can we generally find those key examples that illustrate abuse “across all theological spectrums,” as Chuck DeGroat noted?

Maybe some details on what writing investigative reports and case studies involves will help illuminate those questions …

Spotlighting Research and Systems

As we learned from Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” series on the Boston Catholic diocese and the Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express‘ “Abuse of Faith” series on Southern Baptist Convention, investigative reports and case studies often take multiple people many months to complete. They must compile source materials, conduct interviews, organize data, fact check, clear use of copyrighted materials, write articles, develop executive summaries and other web-ready resources, and have edited accessible and accurate final pieces that may total tens of thousands of words. The labor expended is intensive and financial costs may be high as well, yet the impact can be game-changing for cracking through systemic abuse. Here’s how the Boston Globe’s then-editor Marty Baron summarized their process.

One of the areas I have sensed called to pursue in counteracting spiritual abuse is through research writing. This has included extensive processing of my own experiences in five major situations of abuse since the mid-1970s. This has grounded my related writings on abuse in concrete personal experiences rather than just conceptual readings from other people.

It’s also provided a base for generating relevant questions for when I analyze other people’s writings on the subject, curate resources on specific people or situations, and write case studies — all of which I’ve been doing regularly since 2007. I estimate that I have invested a minimum of 1,000 hours a year doing this (50 weeks x 20 hours per week), and am now in my 14th year.

Case studies take the most time and effort. Some examples:

The largest cases I’ve written on specific situation of reported abuse have each taken 300-350 hours to research and write, and were between 45,000-55,000 words. Those include the BGBC defamation lawsuit against Julie Anne Smith of Spiritual Sounding Board, Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, and diagnosing the Emergent Village/Emergent Movement

I didn’t track the number of hours it took me to produce A Cultural Geography of Abuse Survivor Communities, but this lengthy description and analysis of the theological, sociological, and cultural dynamics of survivors, advocates, and activists took me a full year to complete. I already had a foundation in thinking about the issues involved. But I began focused research on it around the time of The Courage Conference 2018 in October, started writing in December 2018, and finished in December 2019. The final compilation document is nearly 50,000 words.

The set of articles and resource bibliographies on Tullian Tchividjian has taken at least 200-250 hours and resulted in about 10 posts.

One of the most complicated posts to write, fact-check, and embed resource links was about Todd Bentley and the Lakeland Outpouring; it took me an entire week of work, about 30-35 hours for a single post of about 3,000-4,000 words.

For comparison purposes, as best I recall from Christian writers conferences I’ve attended, a typical 160-page trade paperback book (6″ x 9″) has about 60,000 words. The case studies I selected typically have at least that much material available, which means there should be sufficient first- and second-hand information to look for problems and patterns on your own, and not just take for granted that analysis others provide captures it all.

The reason for sharing all of these details is not to razzle-dazzle you, but give you a realistic sense of what “survivor blogging” requires. It takes a lot of time and effort to post carefully researched, well-documented, accessibly-written materials. Actually, I should say, “when you and your team,” because many of the more extensive case studies on survivor blogs often involve collaboration. This may include the victims, advocates, other writers and researchers, and people who help with technical issues such as collecting materials in person or helping with graphics or technology issues.

So — when we go searching for details, documentation, and discerning analysis on situations of abuse, consider that survivor bloggers and investigative reporters have provided us with a huge base of material to work with! This fuels the qualitative research of those curious about specific problems and particular patterns, such as:

  • Abuse survival and advocacy.
  • Personal recovery and organizational damage repair.
  • Identifying indicators of healthy versus toxic individuals and institutions.
  • Locating positive/constructive and negative/destructive examples that best illustrate our findings.

Discerning Relevant Patterns and Arranging Sets of Cases

In my work on case studies, I make a particular point of arranging sets of related cases that make comparison and contrast processes easier. In doing this, I tend to look for highly similar cases with a minimal pair of distinguishing critical features. This technique is one I learned in my first linguistics course 45 years ago and have used ever since. It informed how I came up with some of the contrasting sets of cases that illustrate issues on abuse “across all theological spectrums,” as Chuck DeGroat mentioned.

Here is something I wrote about that technique in 2012, in relation to case studies on sexual abuse and related systemic issues.

Source: Tutorial on Transformation.

Church- and ministry-based evidence about spiritual bullying has been mounting over the last few years especially. And it does seem in 2012 that the documentation has literally exploded. Men and women with first-hand knowledge of alleged abuse by various Christian organizations have increasingly been posting their accounts and their assessments online, including related evidence: documents, timelines, current website links, and Wayback Machine internet archive links. What bullies want to keep hidden in the darkness is coming into the light anyway.

Consider the following list of individual organizations and larger networks or denominations just at the theologically conservative and evangelical end of the spectrum. In 2012, most of these are ongoing subjects of current “citizen journalist” investigations and, for some, even civil cases. Links behind the ministry name go to survivor blogs where that entity is a primary focus. The world of survivor blogs has become so extensive that I doubt I’ve gotten all the relevant links available – and these don’t even include Facebook pages or other kinds of closed forums where people seek healing through processing their experiences. [See article for list.]

Meanwhile, a number of high-profile secular cases of various kinds of abuse have emerged in recent months. These have ballooned in importance to where organizational complicity/cover-up has become as crucial as the original offenses. [See article for list.]

Perhaps the media attention and public outcry are evidences that the social tide is turning against bullies, those who actively protect them, and those who passively excuse by their silence. Or perhaps it represents the reasons why these cases are getting so much publicity. Figuring out WHAT is going on doesn’t always tell us WHY it’s happening now. Back to the issue in a moment … but first, in terms of larger trends, I suspect we’ll find that each different system spotlighted adds pixels to an even bigger picture, just as each individual piece of stone or glass in a mosaic adds dimension to a design.

But how do we figure that out what each contributes, or how clusters of similar elements found across different situations contribute to a “trend”?

Part of what I do to answer that question turns me toward content analysis techniques that I learned in my linguistics training. Our homework included making critical features charts – grids of elements that define words and how they are used. If a word does have a certain feature, you mark the grid with a “+” or with a “–” if it does not. Then you find word sets that show only one difference. These are called a “minimal pair.” For instance, the words this and that form a minimal pair; both can refer to a concrete object or to an abstract concept, but this is close to the speaker and that is farther away. The only critical difference is distance. Another minimal pair is this and these; both relate to something close by the writer or speaker, and the critical difference is these is “+ plural” and this is “– plural.”

This kind of pairing can be especially helpful when things look similar on the surface, but they turn out to be different enough underneath that they are not actually related. For instance, many Christian theologies and world religions use the term grace, but do not mean at all the same thing by it. Or, take the current buzz word, gospel. For some theologies it holds a very specific, limited meaning; for others, it is applied to so many things that it holds little meaning at all.

Critical features grids and minimal pairs help us analyze sets for commonalities as well as differences. They show in chart form the overlaps between items. (Or, if we wanted to go with more of a picture route, we could use Venn diagrams with their overlapping circles to show what the common and different features are.)

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Select Case Studies in Four Dimensions of Theological Spectrums

So — to summarize all the above — I want to select the best candidate case studies that, as a set, are:

  • Clear about what kinds of abusive behaviors individuals did and any institutional enablement or coverup that happened.
  • Have extensive enough detail and documentation to identify critical features that help compare and contrast with related cases.
  • Wherever possible, are solutions-focused with practical suggestions or actual illustrations of what was done to rehabilitate individuals who were perpetrators and perpetuators (if possible) and remediate (repair) damages inflicted by the institution.
  • Written in accessible of language as possible, with definitions of technical terms, which will increase its overall usefulness.

In some cases, I have clustered closely related theological streams or movements together. I have also focused on theological systems rather than specific denominations. Also, I am giving preference to blogs/websites, although once you get into these case studies, you will typically find some researchers and advocates who post their work on Twitter or Facebook instead.

Overall Theological Stream

Orthodox. To be added.

Roman Catholic. Long-time systemic child sexual abuse and coverup in the Roman Catholic Diocese in Boston was exposed in the 2015 movie Spotlight. For background and key resources, see the linked post’s section on The Spotlight Investigation Lights the Way to Understanding Significant Differences.

Anglican. Revelations are ongoing about sexual abuse and coverup in the UK-based Anglican Church. I chose the case study of Australia instead because of the extensive inquiry their Royal Commission conducted there on both religious and non-religious institution. Their reports included a summary plus specifics about the Anglican Church and child sexual abuse. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Religious Institutions page, see the section on Anglican Church.

Protestant/Reformed. I chose Matt Chandler and The Village Church/Acts 29 because he/they have had a series of situations over years, involving reported abuse by leadership, misuse of church membership covenant, failure to report child sexual abuse, and more. These include some well-documented cases of members, such as Jordan Root/Karen Hinkley and Matt Tonne. More recently, Mr. Chandler has been spotlighted for his role as President of the Acts 29 church planting network, which fired Acts 29 CEO Steve Timmis for spiritually abusive behaviors.

Protestant/Lutheran. To be added.

Protestant/Anabaptist. The Mennonites invested in a three-year process to identify and deal with sexual abuse/harassment by one of their most prominent theologians, John Howard Yoder, and systemic enablement by their denominational institutions that let this go unresolved for decades. Here is an introductory post, and this page has an extended case study on the problem, resolution processes, and critiques of it.

Charismatic/Pentecostal. The first case study I produced was in 2008, on Todd Bentley and Lakeland Outpouring. It included details on involvement (and enablement) by key leadership figures within the New Apostolic Reformation. This January 2, 2020, post by Julie Roys brings his case up to date: Top Charismatic Leaders Disqualify Todd Bentley From Ministry for “Steady Pattern of Ungodly and Immoral Behavior.”

Evangelical/Missional.  James MacDonald and the multi-campus Harvest Bible Chapel system has been a long-term situation that has resulted in multiple lawsuits filed, Mr. MacDonald being declared disqualified from ministry, membership revocation by the Evangelical Council of Fiscal Accountability (April 17, 2019), and investigations into reported misappropriation/mismanagement of millions of dollars. The Elephant’s Debt website has been one of the main repositories of documentation and analysis of issues concerning Harvest Bible Chapel. It’s writers, Ryan Michael Mahoney and Scott William Bryant, and their wives, Melinda Mahoney and Sarah Bryant, were named along with Julie Roys in a 2018 lawsuit. Here is the search category on James MacDonald at Julie Roys’ website.

Fundamentalist. In February 2012, the Beaverton [Oregon] Grace Bible Church, and its pastor, Charles O’Neal, filed a $500,000 defamation lawsuit against former member and survivor blogger Julie Anne Smith (founder of Spiritual Sounding Board) and four others. The defendants filed an Anti-SLAPP countersuit, which gave the dispute an expedited status in the legal system. The judge found in favor of the defendants in July 2012, and the plaintiffs completed the mandated court costs and defendants’ legal fees about two months later. The BGBC Lawsuit Archive documents the lawsuit and contains details about the plaintiffs’ church, leaders, and actions. Julie Anne Smith’s precursor blog to Spiritual Sounding Board — BGBC Survivors — also has some details of the lawsuit and issues involved.

Liberal/Progressive. To be added. The case study on Diagnosing the Emergent/Progressive Movement can fill in some of the gaps on development of the progressive theological stream in the U.S. until I am able to provide an alternative case. (This is the same case I use below for decentralized/distributed organizational system type.)

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Polity/Authority System

Whether denominational or associational:

Congregational. For decades, the Southern Baptist Convention has been called out for its lack of concern and actions regarding child sexual abuse and systemic enablement of perpetrators to move on to other churches and ministries. Christa Brown’s blog, Stop Baptists Predators, was one of the main sources of documentation about these interwoven problems. Meanwhile, “local church autonomy” has frequently been cited as the reason why the SBC official entities and convention churches cannot exert control over that situation. However, genuine autonomy resides in the congregation, not in the pastor, but this doctrine has often been misinterpreted in ways that enable authoritarian control by pastors. The lack of “caring well” received some severe shocks in 2019 with the six-part Abuse of Faith investigative reporting series by the Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express. Search the Year-by-Year Select News Items in 2019 for “INVESTIGATIVE SERIES. Abuse of Faith” for links to each of the six articles in that series. Also especially note the parallel resource bibliography on Spiritual Sounding Board — Houston Chronicle’s “Abuse of Faith” in the SBC – Article #1 of 3 – Resources for Additional Research — as it will give you an idea of how extensively survivor bloggers and journalists have documented each specific case mentioned. You’ll find my case study at SBC Abuse Solutions.

Presbyterian. Tullian Tchividjian/hypergrace. 150 supervisors, peers, subordinates. Here is a Spiritual Sounding Board Resource Bibliography about Mr. Tchividjian.; it gives a list of key individuals and institutions involved in his story, and a chronology of events and news from 2009 through 2017. Especially take time to look at the infographic, which collates his reported clergy sexual misconduct with his ministry roles and publications. See also the five-part UN-accountable: Case Study in Systems Analysis and Ministerial Accountability. Links for all five parts are at the top of Part 1, Systems, Systemic Abuse, and Repentance as a Systems Transformation Process. Parts 4 and 5 are the most relevant to the Presbyterian form of polity, stating how it would handle clergy misconduct and potential restoration — and how Mr. Tchividjian failed to follow through with any of multiple plans set up for him.

Episcopal. Gospel for Asia. This SourceWatch entry on Gospel for Asia specifically notes and sources its Episcopal governance: In 1993, GFA began founding its own network of churches in Asia,[5] which is the Believers Church which uses a Episcopal Polity form of governance.[6] What that article does not address is the reported non-profit abuses; mismanagement of funds and related class action lawsuit by donors; and investigations and actions in the U.S., Canada, and India. Warren Throckmorton has been the main writer covering that situation — and he frequently addresses institutional elements of abuse. His website has a lengthy category on GFA. with news and analysis posts going back to 2015.

Franchise system. I am using this term to refer to a church network of voluntary associates (although they may pay fees to join). The association/network has a distinctive “brand” and resources that certified associates may use, but the churches are not owned or managed by the association, whereas campuses in a multi-campus system generally are part of the same mega-church and ultimately guided/influenced by it. I have chosen Calvary Chapel as the most representative of this system of inter-church connection and authority by influence rather than accountability by ownership. Spiritual Sounding Board has some of the more extensive archives available. See their categories on Calvary Chapel Franchise and Calvary Chapel Lawsuit.

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Organizational System Type

I’ve selected the following two cases because they both came out of the same “emerging ministry movement” of the mid-1990s to early 2000s. Also, both have a small set of main celebrity figures, and both eventually ended up deconstructing their root theology. Despite some areas of common ground in wanting to deconstruct conventional Boomer-generation ministry methods, these two streams ended up with opposing modes of organizing their systems.

Centralized / hierarchical (including multi-campus network). When Mark Driscoll was the main celebrity figure in the Mars Hill Church multi-campus system based in Seattle, his theology was what has been termed Neo-Calvinist or YRR (Young, Restless, and Reformed). This is a rather aggressive-to-militant theological stream that is very black-and-white in its thinking overall, rule-oriented, and authority-heavy. My case study on Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill comes from that era, although after Mr. Driscoll resigned from Acts 29 in August 2014 and from Mars Hill in October 2014, rather than undergo any kind of restoration oversight process. He eventually shifted into a more charismatic-influenced theological perspective at his Trinity Church plant, but has apparently maintained his approach to personal, centralized control. The case study main page gives a table of contents and also links to about a dozen of the key websites that covered issues involving Mark Driscoll and/or Mars Hill.

Decentralized / distributed (including flat-structure or informal network). My case study on Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, and the Emergent Village / Emergent-Progressive Movement covers a number of organizational issues. These include how Emergent Village was set up as a flat-structure system of “church deconstruction discussion” around the country, but how that became co-opted (in my opinion) by several key celebrity figures whose personal charisma and theological writings influenced participants such that the system ended up revolving around them. It was centralization by celebrities — and whatever personal and social issues these (mostly) men had, became dominant in the movement over time, and helped sink it.

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Approaches to Gender Issues

I’ve selected these two cases because their approaches to gender hierarchy or parity are primary distinctives of their theological system. As such, it has provided a main point of attraction that has drawn in followers. The question becomes whether the three male leaders mentioned below — all of whom have been credibly accused of sexual abuse/harassment — used their patriarchal or egalitarian premises as a means to draw in potential women victims.

Other advocates for each approach to gender issues wants to claim the problem is with the abusive men themselves and not with the doctrines. (For instance, see the June 17, 2014, post on A Time of Transition, from the Board of Institute in Basic Life Principles.) But, were the doctrines developed as a  convenient way to groom victims? In that case, how do we discern how the doctrines have been tainted? For in-depth treatment of that difficult task for discernment, see the case study on John Howard Yoder.

Complementarian / Patriarchal. Through his Institute in Basic Life Principles, Bill Gothard had, for decades, been one of the main creators and promoters of materials with a hyper-hierarchical, complementarian/patriarchal perspective. (He resigned in March of 2014.) The “Umbrella of Protection” is one of his notable concepts. (A church version that captures the essence of the Shepherding Movement shows Christ at the top, pastors underneath Him, then husband, wife, and children at the bottom.) Recovering Grace has been a main website dedicated to posting news about Bill Gothard, analysis of his doctrines, and the personal narratives of his sexual misconduct victims.

Egalitarian. My Case Study: Willow Creek covers background history, key individuals in the situation, and news and events in the first six months after the Chicago Tribune made public their first investigative report (December 20, 2017) on reported sexual abuse/harassment by Willow Creek church and Global Leadership Summit founder Bill Hybels. The page on Key Individuals links to websites and Twitter accounts (if any) of the various survivors and advocates. Scot McKnight has written numerous relevant posts, many with strategic analysis and implications for the Church. Search his Jesus Creed blog or general online search for “Bill Hybels,” “Willow Creek,” or “Global Leadership Summit.” Also, early in 2020, another early figure in Willow Creek’s history, Gilbert Bilezikian, was credibly accused of clergy sexual misconduct. That story is still emerging as of late February 2020, and investigative reporter Julie Roys has a tag for her articles on Gilbert Bilezikian.

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[Added April 28, 2020] From SBC Abuse Solutions:

Case Studies on Identifying and Dealing with Systemic Abuse

For my SBC Abuse Solutions website, I developed a set of case studies to cover system-related issues about removal of malignant people and repair of toxic systems. I overview them on the main page, Case Studies on Identifying and Dealing with Systemic Abuse, and there are links near the bottom of that page for subpages addressing specific topic categories I used for organizing the cases. The sets include churches/ministries that did things righteously and those that didn’t, and also do-it-yourself cases to research or review, and then discern and decide for yourself whether it was more positive/constructive or negative/destruction. I see this as crucial, because discernment is the main skill that authoritarians/overlords seek to eradicate.

Stages of Problem Severity for Organizational Repair

I’d recommend that you go through these first five subpages in order after finishing this introductory page, then look at the other subpages for sets of compare/contrast case studies on major issues

1. Stage 1: Repair – Sustaining Hope and Help.

2. Stage 2: Renovate – Hope is on the Line.

3. Stage 3. Reclaim – Hope in Definite Jeopardy.

4. Stage 4. Raze – When Hope Fades or Fails.

5. Introduction to Contrasting Case Studies in Doing Organizational Repairs Wisely or Poorly.

6. Contrasting Cases: Independent versus Internal Investigation.

7. Contrasting Cases: Genuine Apologies Versus Deflections.

8. Contrasting Cases: Transparency Versus Secrecy.

9. Contrasting Cases: System-Wide Repairs Versus No Substantive Repairs.

The series of brief case studies in first four subpages focus on exploring the landscape contours of Stages 1 through 4, in groups or organizations that need to deal with toxic systems. They also illustrate issues at the borders between Stages, especially when it comes to hope.

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