10 Institutional: Christian Industrial Complex

On This Page:

  • Introducing the Concept of an “Industrial Complex”
  • How a Very Creative Counterculture Can Eventually Become a Consumerist Culture
  • Strategies and Structures that Increasingly Lock People into Institutionalized Systems
  • Various Elements and Entities in a “Christian Industrial Complex”

Note #1: Page 10 was original titled “Institutional: Emergent Industrial Complex.” In the course of developing that specific material, I increasingly felt it would be important to lay some groundwork first what leads to an “industrial complex” in general, and then what that looks like in a Christian context. So, this page deals with that.

You may feel the tug to go directly to the article on Detailing the Emergent Industrial Complex on page 11, which is fine. But I would suggest if that draws you in first, that you check out the articles on this page eventually, as these describe the processes of how a creative, countercultural movement goes toward institutionalization, and how an interlocking directory com about. This page’s articles should help make the overarching context and the eventual product of the Emergent version of this as detailed on page 11 more understandable.

Note #2: I will periodically highlight some text on this page with red letters to draw attention to sections that deal with the Emergent Movement specifically.

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Introducing the Concept

of an “Industrial Complex”

Some social researchers and organizational developers have described an institution as a social organization or business enterprise that lasts beyond two generations. In terms of strategic foresight issues, my interest is more particularly whether that institution merely survives into the future by passing on the same legacy with expectations of conformity to the original purposes – or whether it becomes sustainable by training next generations to use the legacy with flexibility as they discern their own times and cultural necessities and act within the spirit the founders intended.

In attempting to get into and through a second generation of leadership, an individual organization or movement makes the jump to an institution primarily through seemingly indispensable partnerships, contracts, and collaborative efforts. But what happens when there are people with pathologies in the mix, or the organization is riddled with sick systems, or the collaborations create a toxic impact?

This page focuses on the larger system of an organizational interlocking directory, where the same set of people have extended (and therefore presumable undue) personal influence and decision-making power within a wide range of social endeavors and business ventures, and – in this case – thought leadership in theology and role modeling in ministry. This gridlock of leadership could include:

  • Academia and other educational organizations and programs for formal and information education, training, and mentoring.
  • Associations and networks.
  • Businesses, brands, events, and marketing.
  • Media – traditional/conventional (e.g., publishing, speaking events, TV, radio) and emerging/digital social media platforms (eBooks, blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, texting).
  • Ministry platforms – traditional/attractional (e.g., church, preaching, denominational resources) and entrepreneurial/missional (church planting, community development, social transformation projects).
  • Political influence, justice, social dissent.
  • Philanthropic endeavors – conventional non-profits and foundations, and emerging crowd-sourced and social-benefit organization and business equivalents (Toms, Charity*Water, Kiva, GoFundMe, etc.).

Apply the concept of “military industrial complex” to Christendom versions, and it means there is interdependency of power dynamics through partnerships in publishing, speaking events, formal academia and informal teaching and mentoring, non-profits, ministry start-ups, celebrity-making, and marketing.

The elements and the dynamics involved become especially important to discern, as all streams that have come from the evangelical emerging ministry movement have some form of this larger institutional grid. What and who comprise a Christian Industrial Complex? Is there an Emergent version of this? Or is there more of an Emergent/Progressive Industrial Complex? Or something else …?

For the articles on this page, I have adapted some of the following from earlier materials I wrote in the five-part series, Deconstructing the Christian Industrial Complex. See that series for greater detail. I wrote it in October 2014, and had in mind the unfolding events in both Mars Hill Church/Resurgence and the Emergent Movement. I am also adapting sections from one of my posts in the Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse series I wrote in September 2014.

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How a Creative Counterculture Can

Eventually Become a Consumerist Culture

INTRODUCTION. Adaptations of Parts 1 through 3 of Deconstructing the Christian Industrial Complex appear in this tutorial, which overviews the process of how a dynamic new subculture with a populist participation can devolve into a gridlocked institutional that benefits an elite group, and others end up as accomplices or pawns.

Part 1 – Culturology, futurology, and three frameworks for decoding the Christian Industrial Complex.

Part 2 – Framework #1. Trajectory arcs of emerging subculture movements and interactions with the mainstream.

Part 3 – Framework #2. Power dynamics that corrode populism into consumerism.

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Historical Roots of the Concept

A question that’s arisen lately on spiritual abuse survivor blogs has to do with the “Christian Industrial Complex,” or some variation thereon, such as the:

  • Evangelical Industrial Complex.
  • Emergent Industrial Complex.
  • Resurgence Industrial Complex.
  • Patriarchal Industrial Complex.

These are contemporary versions of the idea of a Military-Industrial Complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned against in his farewell speech. I’d describe it as a gridlock of military, political, and business interests that formed a self-benefiting association of preferential relationships that went against the public interest. (Some of the classic research behind the Military-Industrial Complex comes from The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills.)

The Arc of a Subculture Movement into the Mainstream

In the mid-1990s, I did extensive research work on the process of how “identity subcultures” emerge, based on a newfound set of core values that first drew them together as an “affinity group.” Typically, those values are things these individuals have embraced that are missing from the mainstream culture, or other countercultural groups.

Sometimes those values attracted people from widely different social situations, cultures, races, etc., and they created a virtual tribe based on something they all saw as important that was missing in the mainstream culture. Keep in mind that these virtual-identity, cultural creative entities start out as producing something new – it’s inherent to their emergence. However, it doesn’t always stay that way. Sometimes a forward trajectory runs out of creative energy, or otherwise ends up going sideways.

For the subculture’s insiders, the arc of cultural formation process tends to go from catalyzed (fresh and energized), to standardized (expected and getting stale), to either neutralized (dilution and extreme inertia) or self-euthanized (dissolution and implosion) or revitalized/retro-ized (transmorphed and re-energized).

For those outside the subculture, there tends to be a sort of magnetic attraction or repulsion process. If the mainstream’s magnet starts by being attracted by the newly noticed subculture, then the arc of their involvement goes from being mesmerized by it, to popularizing it. From there in can negative – getting bored with it, and then discarding it in favor of the latest “new thing” – or stay positive and continue embracing it. If the mainstream’s magnet starts by being repulsed, the storyline is often more along the lines of marginalizing and even stigmatizing it. If the repulsion doesn’t last, then potentially it moves to tolerating or somewhat embracing the movement, and from there it may even merge with the trajectory of those who were attracted by it.

So, subcultures typically start as underground or more hidden affinity groups, and they usually emerge as “countercultural” – in reaction or opposition to the mainstream culture. Gradually they get noticed and often become more popularized.

Mimicking by the mainstream is a key way that a diluted version of the values the subculture produced eventually show up in the mainstream. Or, sometimes, some people indigenous to the subcultural tribe rise to a level of greater public awareness. If they keep their roots, they generally stay activists who keep producing. If they lose their roots, they generally become celebrities who seek to find consumers. With activists, the subculture’s values continue being presented in a more hard-core way that challenges and agitates. With celebrities, the subculture’s values seem to get remade into something softer and more palatable.

As best I’ve been to intuit, that process of subculture-to-mainstream influence typically takes 15 to 20 years. For instance, I used this analysis tool in my 1998 article on Barometer Subcultures for Studying Three Street-Level Postmodernist Edges,. I tracked the emergence of punk, cyberpunk, and third-culture kids subcultures as precursors to different dimensions present in what was then known as “emerging ministry.” If I were re-doing this article today, I would certain have titled it something else – I can’t believe is used postmodernist, but I had a limited vocabulary for some things back thing – plus I would add the emergence of eco-spirituals as a precursor to the ecological-mystical wing in postmodern cultures.

Corrosive Power Dynamics that Turn a Participatory Movement into Consumerist Monument

When a populist movement like “emerging ministry” starts out, it has a grassroots culture of participation. It’s more decentralized and messy, a virtual-identity group with few rules and no rulers. Participants flounder around, trying to figure things out, but actually have fun doing it. People work things out and are glad to have somewhere to share whatever gifts and abilities they’ve got to contribute for the common good.

As “key people” emerge or either are designated by an outside “sponsor” who funds things or become promoted through popular acclaimed from within the movement, that represents a major shift. What once was an organic movement becomes an oligarchy of elites/celebrities who “lead” (or hijack) the agenda. Now it’s more on its way to being a consumerist culture with a centralized cluster of identifiable organizational entities and enterprises involving business, media, politics, philanthropy, arts, etc.

If/when money becomes a major issue to the insider elites, the oligarchy typically becomes a plutarchy (i.e., plutocracy, rule by the rich). This is where the individual celebrities link up with complementary financial partners: event sponsors and promoters, publishers, speakers bureaus, social media platforms, certifying agencies, etc. Where grassroots movements might be far more sustainable, the consumer networks require constant streams of new products to keep the income maintainable – and sometimes the reduction in the size of the celebrity group at the top of the publicity pyramid.

When the demand side of consumers marries with the supply side of elites-and-partners, this once-creative counterculture is on the way to a closed system. Only those individuals who have the required platform, message, social media following, connections with others in the directory are allowed to be designated as elite insiders, and – for “the greater good” – there is now a gridlock against outside voices that critique. Inside critiquers are likewise not very welcome, and so various enforcers of the system find ways to silence, deflect, or remove them.

With an airtight, anti-change system in place, the organization keeps recirculating its air and trying to maintain its energy, but it has already started moving toward entropy. So by this stage, you have an idolatrous culture. In the extreme, people are reduced to plebes who find their vicarious identity in the celebrity leaders’ machine, and don’t realize they are but cogs to keep it going … unless or until something shakes them up enough to awaken to the fact that they are keeping a failing, toxic system propped up.

Note: It’s important that we not overgeneralize and pain every movement as evil. Simply because a movement has thought leaders and activists, that doesn’t make it all bad, or all the people in it suspect. This description is about typical turning points on the trajectory of a movement going into an institution. Some key underlying dynamics help reveal whether the movement is corroding and becoming toxic, and whether its leaders are implanting malignancy, and whether its other people involved are true participants, accomplices to the elite, or mere pawns.

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Strategies and Structures that Increasingly

Lock People into Institutionalized Systems

INTRODUCTION. I adapted Part 4 of Deconstructing the Christian Industrial Complex to look at strategies and structures that increasingly move toward locking people into toxic systems. This starts with “bounded choice,” and escalates through an “interlocking directory” of elites who control what was once a dynamic movement, and into a “total institution” that controls most aspects of everyday interactions.

Unfortunately, the Emergent/Progressive Movement seems to have passed the dividing point where it once was creatively productive, and has become institutionalized as a consumerist culture with an interlocking directory of elite thought leaders and activists. However, thankfully, it doesn’t appear to be at the stage of a total institution.

Part 4 – Framework #3. Psycho-social strategies and structures that lock people into toxic systems.

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Bounded Choice and Psychological/Social Conditioning

How do people who want prestige, power, and/or money secure that from inside a movement? They move it toward being a closed system – no criticizing or questioning the old, no welcoming in new leaders or ideas unless previously approved by the old regime, that kind of thing.

A closed system like this creates what is called bounded choice.” Bounded choice is a basic type of “conditioning” designed to control someone’s behavior. This eventually removes freedom for self-determination, allowing individuals to operate only within specified choices. As they do that, it may look like growth or change because people are active, but actually, it’s just an orbit around the set of rules and regulations designed to limit personal freedom and keep people in line.

So, even if someone is no longer tethered to the system, they’ve been trained to self-constrain themselves to negate any doubts, objections, or questions that arise. In other words, they keep on the same toxic trajectory, just because it’s become the only thing they really know.

Moving from the sociological and organizational part of toxicity, here are how psychological and relational processes manifest themselves when a movement has gone from participatory to consumerist to parasitic – from relatively “safe” to exceedingly “unsafe.”

Grooming for Recruitment. Intentional psychological and relational conditioning of someone’s thought life, emotions, worldview, and friendships to get people involved in a group or movement. Often this uses positive reinforcement and “love bombing” in relationships to get people hooked into the system. These kinds of grooming strategies and tactics lead toward …

… Victimization. Intentional misuse of power dynamics (emotional leverage, physical strength, religious or political position of authority, etc.) in a relationship between unequal “partners” to perpetrate abuse of spiritual authority. Things may still like “nice” and “normal” on the surface, but this stage is often where things turn nasty, if someone shows resistance to “the machine.” These victimization strategies and tactics lead toward …

… Grooming for Retention. Intentional structuring of someone’s thought life, emotions, worldview, and activities to keep people involved in the group or movement. This can be either positive or negative reinforcement – such as complements (You’re great! We need you!) or “gaslighting” (You’re crazy! Who else’d want you?) – or an unpredictable alternating between them to keep members feeling insecure and ultimately to maintain the machine …

It has been my observation that systems of control can run on compliance to rules and regulations (like the former Soviet Union), or on chaos and unpredictability (as in the Maoist Cultural Revolution), or on a particular charismatic person (like Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple). However, all three need charismatic people in them as part of both the organizational start-up and maintenance processes. This does not mean that all people who have the “gift of woo” and can sway others into their perspective are inherently bad people. Rather, it’s just to note that it seems to be charismatic people who rise to the top in movements and become celebrities or figureheads – the faces of the values of the movement.

Interlocking Directory of Elites, on the Way to a Total Institution

From the beginnings of a power-prestige-finances pyramid, the elites who now have sufficient influence in their gridlock of leadership can create an interlocking directory of family and friends who run interrelated political, social, philanthropic, media, and economic enterprises. This gridlock eventually removes freedom of association, because the social identity and consumer products created by the elites squeeze out other providers and other product options. To be a compliant subject, you must kowtow to the limited slate of consumer choices the leaders allow.

This means, in part, that the cultural creative part of the original movement has been lost and a “style” has been standardized. I would suggest that the Emergent Movement could be seen as having become this sort of cultural gridlock, with a limited list of key authors, speakers, events, businesses, media outlets, etc. I do not see at as having gone farther afield – such as to a “total institution” – though it could be seen as having diluted versions of some of the practices that drive such a system of control. (For instance, people who had never met Julie McMahon Jones had heard through the Emergent grapevine that she was “batshit crazy.” Some of them apologized for hearing this and not confronting it as gossip. How does that kind of rumor with such specificity get spread unless there are extensive communication networks based on trusting the people who pass on such disinformation?)

A total institution exists where all aspects of life are dictated and regulated. Examples are prisons, old-school mental hospitals, and military boot camps where the entire schedule is set for inmates, patients, and novices. Total institutions are closed systems that assert complete control over their inhabitants’ worldview (beliefs) and world-do (activities). They prescribe inhabitants’ interpretation of reality, self-perception, organizational roles, social relationships, cultural lifestyles, political isolation (or attempts at domination), media access, etc. The system is now just one giant cog, and it removes the freedom of cultural participation. (See also this book by Erving Goffman on Asylums, which was a major research source for the concept of total institution.)

On an even larger scale of total institution is the totalitarian or authoritarian state – typically run by one main person plus an inner circle of enforcers in a dictatorship, or multiple leaders in an oligarchy with at least one charismatic person as a figurehead. At this level, the entity is considered a sociological “cult” (regardless of whether it is a religious group or not). Control is instilled and then maintained across multiple generations over time with a “psychology of totalism” that conditions all its citizens from childhood onward for “right” thinking and behaving, with severe punishments for disobedient behaviors, dissenting views, or any other form of difference that supposedly threatens the “unity” of the movement or state. (See this post with links to summaries of Robert Jay Lifton’s pioneering research work on what have been eight classic criteria for identifying systems that us a psychology of totalism.)

The use of the term institution is important to note here, as one definition of an institution is any social, business, or political organization that lasts beyond two generations. I think that applies to subcultures and other social movements as well, which makes it relevant to the topic of this article.

“Institution” has a negative connotation for many people. I’d suggest, however, that just because something is an institution, that doesn’t always mean it is institutionalized – bogged down by rules and regulations. Some forms of social organization create legacies that can last beyond two generations and stay viable and participatory by building in flexibility, and training next generation leaders to adapt the organization’s original purpose to whatever cultural times they find themselves in. So, it depends. Institutions can be sustainable for the long term through multiple generations, but institutionalized organizations are eventually only maintainable for as long as current leaders can keep them going.

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Various Elements and Entities in

a “Christian Industrial Complex”

INTRODUCTION. An adaptation of Part 5 of Deconstructing the Christian Industrial Complex serves as the introduction for this article, which gets into the broad details of what a Christian Industrial Complex is and how it happens – usually in transitioning the values and leadership to a next generation.

Part 5 – Christian Industrial Complexes, institutionalized social movements, and the dark side of toxic systems.

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Christian Industrial Complexes

In my opinion, any variation of Christian Industrial Complex combines many elements of bounded choice and interlocking directories. It emphasizes specific Christian genres of theological systems or ministry practices, and promotes specific celebrities who embody them. This can be marketed and sold outright to friends and followers as “the best brand,” or somehow ends up as perceived as the right way to go among those vulnerable to looking for a “total system” that answers all their needs.

I do NOT think a Christian Industrial Complex is likely to reach the extreme end of the spectrum and become a total institution – although some of its celebrity leaders may definitely go into that direction individually as toxic leaders and their partner entities end up as very sick organizational systems. The system is generally too large and too decentralized to exert that much control. However, the presence of the bounded choice and interlocking directory factors do put a Christian Industrial Complex at high risk for at least becoming institutionalized and stale, while enabling pockets of toxicity via malignant ministers within the larger framework of interconnections.

When a Charismatic Movement Loses its Creative Momentum

Also, the overfocus on black-and-white “best brand” thinking plus a limited cadre of communicators who promote the variant paradigm means that it’s no longer a vital alternative culture. At some point it has already jumped the shark – and is now overstating its current creativity. It has overstayed the brand’s viability.

Tony Jones himself writes about this in his article on Lonnie Frisbee and the Non-Demise of the Emerging Church. Here he quotes sociologist Max Weber on charisma from The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (The Free Press, 1947), and he also paraphrases Weber’s conclusion about what happens with a second generation:

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Max Weber’s definition that charisma is,

a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.

That’s Lonnie Frisbee in a nutshell.

More damning, however, is Weber’s conclusion that religious charisma is always routinized and bureaucratized as the generation that follows the charismatic leader attempts to capture the charisma and make a living from it. (Emphasis in the original.)

When the Transference Process to a Second Generation Gets Stuck

The task of every movement or organization whose members want it to survive involves figuring out transition of its values and its leadership to the next generation. After all, to qualify as an “institution,” it has to last beyond two generations.

And in this context, first generation means those involved at the beginning of a countercultural movement – regardless of their chronological ages. So, with what officially turned into an Emergent Village start-up group about 2001, some of those first-generation figures were Brian McLaren (born 1956; then in his mid-40s), and Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones (born 1966 and 1968, respectively; then about in their mid-30s). A second generation might still include some of those originators when others transition out and some new people transition in, but there has been a significant enough shift in the group’s composition for it to be noticed.

Having done a lot of generational studies myself, here I am also reminded of how the generations beyond the counterculture originators who fought for something new do not always grasp well the issues of the original conflict. Often, they have been born into an era of its benefits, not an era of its initial conflicts. Worth reflecting on about this issue of transition is this Helen Haste Quote on Generations and Measuring Change, dealing with the “post-feminist” generations.

In the long run, what counts is how the next generation thinks. How far new ideas permeate culture is not measured just by attitude change during one generation, but by what is taken for granted in the next.

~ Helen Haste, in The Sexual Metaphor: Men, Women, and the Thinking that Makes the Difference (Harvard University Press, 1994), page 149.

In the case of transitioning to a second-generation of Emergent/Progressive leadership, it looks like the transference process has gotten stuck in an orbit around first-generation figures – and their personal issues that infused into the movement. And what should be the outplaying of a movement’s next scene has ended up as a replay of an earlier scene.

But the Emergent Movement seems stuck in an interlocking directory of first- and second-generation figures and partnerships. (I will not be doing an exhaustive analysis, but some specifics are the subject of the next page, 11A Framework for Detailing of the Emergent Complex, and related pages 11B – Elements, 11C – Publishing, 11D – My Findings, and 11E – Social Media Upheaval 2015.) And perhaps it is at this very point in the in-between zone of the first and second generation’s interlocking directory, and surviving as an institution, when the dark sides of toxic Christian Industrial Complex systems most often emerge.

The Dark Side of Toxic Systems

From what we’ve witnessed in the past five or so years, we seem to have a couple examples where it’s become apparent enough that those who benefit from being in a particular Christian Industrial Complex engaged in manipulation and disinformation to gain and maintain their power situation. I believe this is what is happening right now with two streams that originally co-existed within the emerging ministry movement, as I noted in Mars Hill, Emergent Movement, Emergent “Meltdown”?

Mars Hill Church spun out of the “emerging ministry movement” to become the theologically conservative wing of things with the New Calvinism/Resurgence movement. Emergent Village spun out as the theologically progressive wing and eventually turned into an Emergent movement as the Village eventually went defunct. As a long-time student of the dynamics of spiritual abuse, I would note this as evidence that apparent abuse of spiritual authority can happen in any theological system along the entire spectrum of Christianity, because every theology has inherently abusive fault lines which pathologically-inclined people can exploit for self-serving power and prestige.

In both cases, the movements centralized around particular people and organizational partner entities. There are evidences of positive and negative conditioning by individual leaders and in some of the partner entities, and of increasing restrictions of freedom through bounded choice and “preferred partnerships.” And there are even some noticeable levels of some of the eight classic indicators of authoritarian “cults” as found in the research work of Robert Jay Lifton. (For a summary and extended overviews of each of Dr. Lifton’s eight indicators, see The Hunger Games Trilogy and Research Criteria for Sociological “Cults.”)

But, if you want to do things the Punk/DIY way – and I hope you do! – below is a list of key characteristics for a Christian Industrial Complex you can use to do your own research and reflection, and see what you think for yourself.

Key Questions and Indicators for Interlocking Directory

Look for interconnections based on reliance on others for money, prestige, and/or power. If there is gold by association, there may legitimately be guilt by association. Look for a common identity where there is enmeshment. If you see or hear about Person ABC, do you consistently see or hear about Person XYZ with him/her? Look for what the “value and belief profile” is for the inner circle of spokespeople, and how it may differ from what rank-and-file members may be. Examine the movement or organization you’re interested in and look for patterns of common participation in/by:

  • Speakers/consultants (paid). Podcasters (probably unpaid, other than perhaps from website ads).
  • Authors (paid). Bloggers (probably unpaid).
  • Publishing houses with multiple authors in the same theological genre or movement.
  • Event hosts, planners, and promoters.
  • Event sponsors.
  • Overlapping membership on organizational boards of directors.
  • Partnering agencies, non-profits, networks, foundations, funders.
  • Partnering schools, training programs, institutes, seminaries.
  • Commenders who are Tweeters, bloggers, Facebookers, etc.
  • Certification agencies (like ECFA/Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.)

For instance, an interlocking directory pretty much feature the same list of speakers at events by Business ABC.

Some or even all are also under contract by Publishing House DEF, and they share the same Literary Agent GHI, and they write forewords and endorsements and Amazon reviews and Tweets for each others’ books.

Meanwhile, many serve on the advisory boards or boards of directors for each others’ Non-Profits J, K, and L, and some work as paid consultants for them.

And Seminary MNO has multiple people from this checklist on their Adjunct Faculty list.

And Foundation PQR or individual funders like ST and UV keep things afloat for Organization WXYZ.

So – looking at any particular individual who seems to be on a movements celebrity list, on a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high), how “locked in” is he or she to other individuals and organizations in the movement’s directory?

What are their ethical and/or financial conflicts of interest, if any?

Can we trust their supportive statements or endorsements about other members of the directory, or should we consider them to be tainted by any conflicts of interest that go beyond just normal friendships?

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