Freedom: Reflections for Veterans' Day

John Mark Mattox*

SquareTwo, Vol. 1. No. 1 (Fall 2008)


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(*Views expressed in this essay are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense of any other U.S. Government entity. Neither do they imply any endorsement by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

            With the approach of Veterans’ Day—especially at a time when the United States finds itself at war, much will be said about the importance of “freedom.”  Indeed, much of what is said will assume, perhaps over-generously, a shared conception of what “freedom” is.  One rather pedestrian definition commonly assigned to “freedom,” and often alluded to in interviews on the street in the mass media, is “the license to do whatever one wishes without the imposition of any external constraints.”  While some listeners at Veterans’ Day events might uncritically embrace this definition—perhaps even with feelings of profound emotion, latter-day revelation illuminates a certain irony concerning it, which invites careful reflection:  In reality, this commonly applied definition of freedom, the one which armies ostensibly fight to preserve, applies only to our Heavenly Father and to those who ultimately become like Him.  It is not a definition which, strictly speaking, applies to mortals. 

The Boundaries of “Freedom”

            The fact is that there are many things which mortals are not “free” to do, because of the limitations of our present existence.  We are bound by time, by space, and by the fact that a veil has been placed over our minds such that we know only a little—and that by revelation—of what we learned and experienced while living in the presence of our Heavenly Father in the eternal world.  We are also bound by weaknesses of the flesh, to include hunger, fatigue, genetic defects, hereditary tendencies, physical maladies, the effect of accidents, and so forth.  All of this combines to mean that, in this life, our choices are not, and cannot be, “free” in the sense of being unbounded. 

            Likewise, there are some things that none are “free” to do in this mortal existence, but might be empowered to do hereafter.  For example, no mortal enjoys the “freedom” to resurrect the dead (To raise the dead, such that the spirit and body are restored to the mortal condition—yes; and on an exceptional basis, faithful bearers of the priesthood have been empowered to raise the dead.  To resurrect the dead, such that the spirit and body are reunited permanently in a condition of glory—no; that is a priesthood key which has not been delegated to man on earth.) [1]  Moreover, there likely are many other such things that exceed the ability of human minds to conceive, which humans are not currently empowered to do, and, therefore, not “free” to do.  Hence, Lehi teaches not that mortals are limitlessly free, but rather, that they “are free according to the flesh”—that is, free within the limited context of the mortal existence (2 Ne 2:27).

Refined Definitions of “Freedom”

            Granting, therefore, that no practical definition of “freedom” includes things beyond the scope of human ability or understanding, one might then refine the definition of freedom to be “the license to do anything within one’s extant power.”  However, this results in a definition of “freedom” that is too narrow:  Millions of persons now subjected to political oppression of various kinds certainly would counter that they are being denied the opportunity to do things that humans should be licensed to do.  To address this concern, the definition could be further refined to read, “freedom is license to do anything one should be allowed to do within the context of present human existence.”  However, even this refinement is not without substantial difficulties, because reason has produced a wide array of accounts pertaining to what humans should and should not be allowed to do. 

            One attempted solution to this problem has been to propose that one should be free to do whatever one wishes as long as the act has no effect on others.  An advocate of this formulation of the definition might, for example, oppose laws mandating the wear of helmets by motorcyclists, arguing that the harm which potentially comes to the non-helmet-wearing cyclist threatens no harm to others and, hence, is the cyclist’s business alone.  However, the idea that “anything goes” as long as it causes no harm to others has a seductive quality, which requires closer scrutiny.  Indeed, to establish the argumentative point, our non-helmet-wearing motorcyclist would have to ignore the effect which the possible negative consequences of his decision—perhaps a massive head trauma—would have upon his ability to discharge obligations to loved ones, to employers, to the church, and so forth.  He also would have to ignore the enormous emotional distress that the decision, which allegedly affects no one else, would have upon close friends and loved ones.

            Now, of course, one might argue that the fact that consequences follow in no way impairs the license to exercise “freedom” as such; one can, after all, choose act without regard to consequences.  While that may be true, the tacit assumption—not logically warranted, but nonetheless common—which frequently accompanies the decision to pursue courses of action that produce negative consequences is that somehow one can invoke a supposed right of exemption from negative consequences—or alternatively stated, that one has license (and ability) to separate the tie between cause and effect.  This assumption is alive and well in contemporary Western society, in which significant segments of the population claim the right to engage in self-destructive behaviors and then place responsibility upon governments and others to devote endless resources to solve their self-induced problems.  The AIDS and illicit drug epidemics serve as cases in point. 

            Nevertheless, the ability to sever the tie between cause and effect, whether the effect is immediate or latent, simply does not lie within the realm of human capacity or human prerogative.  The helmetless motorcycle rider cannot escape the attendant risks associated with the consequences of that choice, regardless of whether the consequences are immediately or ever realized. 

A Latter-day Scriptural Perspective

            In a similar vein, one might claim that the ability, or even the right, to violate the Word of Wisdom or the Law of Chastity or other of the Lord’s commandments is part and parcel of his or her entitlement as a free agent.  Clearly, the entitlement exists.  However, as the revelations make clear, willful disobedience of divine commands always, sooner or later (in the absence of sincere repentance) results in some kind of consequence—a consequence which will make the violator less free, not more free. 

            The light of Christ given to all men and the whisperings of the Holy Ghost given to those who have entered into a covenant relationship with the Lord both indicate that the belief that one should feel free to do whatever one wants, without regard to any other consideration, cannot possibly be right. Of what, then, does freedom?  In order to answer that question, let us imagine the freest being in the whole universe.  What kind of being would that be, and who would it be?  The answer is, of course, our Heavenly Father, and the restored Gospel gives us the answer as to why this is so:

  • Our Heavenly Father is omnipotent. 

That is, He has all power to do all things.  There is nothing that He cannot do.  As Abraham learned in revelation, “there is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it" (Abr 3:17).  There is no constraint whatsoever on what He can accomplish.  As Nephi teaches, our Heavenly Father “hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words" (1 Ne 9:6).   He is omnipotent.  Therefore, there is no limitation on Him by virtue of a lack of power, for He lacks none; there is nothing too hard for Him.  Therefore, with respect to having power, He is completely free.

  • Our Heavenly Father is omniscient. 

That is, there is nothing that He does not know.  Nephi states, “For he knoweth all things, and there is not anything save he knows it" (2 Ne 9:20).   There is no limitation on Him by virtue of a lack of knowledge, for He lacks none.  Therefore, with respect to having knowledge, He is completely free.

  • Our Heavenly Father is, by the power of His spirit, omnipresent. 

That is, although, as the revelations teach, He “has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's,” still it is the case that by the power of His spirit, His influence can be felt everywhere simultaneously (D&C 130:22).  There is no limitation on Him by virtue of His being unable to act any place at any time; there is no place where His influence cannot be exercised.  Therefore, with respect to the ability to exercise His influence omnipresently, He is completely free.

  • Our Heavenly Father is perfect in every respect. 

His perfections are the perfections of His attributes, which, as the Prophet Joseph Smith informs us, include knowledge, power, justice, judgment, mercy, and truth (Lectures on Faith 4:5-10).   There is no limitation upon Him on account of any flaw whatsoever in His personality; therefore, He is completely free and unfettered in the exercise of His attributes.

  • Our Heavenly Father is an unchangeable being—the same yesterday, today, and forever. 

This is so because there is nothing about Him that requires changing.  In other words, there is nothing from which He needs to repent (the word “repent” meaning “to have a change of mind”).  Having no need for repentance, He is completely free from any necessity to change. 

            Now, some might mistakenly assume that limits exist upon our Heavenly Father because of certain passages of scripture which inform us of things which are foreign to our Heavenly Father’s character.  Take, for example, Alma’s point that if God were to allow mercy to rob justice (Alma 42:13, 22, 25), or Moroni’s point that if God were to change (Mormon 9:19), He would cease to be God.  Note, however, that Alma and Moroni are speaking in “counterfactual” terms.  That is, they are describing, for purposes of illustration only, conditions which absolutely do not exist in order to make a point. [2]   They are describing conditions which are utterly and completely foreign to our Heavenly Father’s nature:  Our Heavenly Father does not, in fact, change; our Heavenly Father does not, in fact, allow mercy to rob justice.  Our Heavenly Father is not held captive by the threat of falling from His exalted position, because the counterfactuals cited by Alma and Moroni involve things that our Heavenly Father would never do.  Another noteworthy case is Amulek’s statement that “it is impossible for [God] to deny his word" (Alma 11:34).  It is “impossible” because to deny His word would be to act in a way that is utterly contrary to His nature; to understand this impossibility as a constraint upon freedom (as in the example above of the inability of mortals to resurrect others from the dead) would be to misunderstand freedom itself; for the aim of freedom is to enable one to acquire the same nature which God Himself possesses—not to prevent the attainment of that divine nature.

            To further illustrate, the law which says, “Thou shalt not kill [i.e., murder]” is not a limiting factor to one who has no disposition to murder; for a person who truly possesses no disposition to murder would not murder whether or not murder was against the law (Exodus 20:13).  As a man “thinketh in his heart, so is he”; where there is no disposition to act in a certain way, no action follows (Proverbs 23:7).  Our Heavenly Father occupies His exalted position precisely because of the kind of being He is.  He has no disposition to be anything other than the perfect being that He is; and therefore, He does not live under any threat whatsoever of losing His position.  As a result, He is perfectly free from any such concern.

            Thus, by any pertinent measure, our Heavenly Father is completely free.  In contrast to our Heavenly Father—the most free Being in all the universe, we find His antithesis, who is, of course, Satan.

  • Satan is not omnipotent. 

Powerful as he may seem to be or wish us to think that he is, he has no power in any lastingly meaningful sense unless we yield our power of agency to him through our disobedience to God’s commandments.

  • Satan is not omniscient. 

There are plenty of things that he does not know.  Of particular significance is the fact that he does not know the mind of God (see, for example, Moses 4:6), and, as a result, his attempts to thwart the plan of salvation have themselves been thwarted at every turn, as we learn from multiple examples in the scriptures.

  • Satan is not omnipresent. 

His influence seems to be as pervasive as it is merely because he has enjoyed success in recruiting a fairly large number of people, both in this world and in the unseen world, to work for him. 

  • Satan’s attributes are entirely evil. 

Not only is he, himself, only evil continually, but also, in Mormon’s words, “he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him" (Moroni 7:17).  Thus, he neither possesses nor imparts any good influence of any kind.

  • Satan is a changeable being, alright. 

He will change however may be necessary in order to accomplish his evil purposes.  For example, he will resort even to telling partial truths if by doing so he can persuade men to believe his lies.  He will occasionally support ostensibly worthy social causes if, by doing so, he can detract attention from activities that will lead to eternal life and salvation.  He will change however he can within the limits of his power if changing will enable him, in Nephi’s words, to “[cheat] men’s souls and [lead] them carefully down to hell (2 Ne 28:21).

            However, there is one important respect in which Satan does not change. Recall that the original meaning of the word, “repent,” is “to change one’s mind”:  Satan is so enslaved to evil that he has lost all ability and inclination to repent; and he will never be otherwise.  President Spencer W. Kimball taught this as follows:

In the [early] days of the restoration there apparently were those who taught that the devil and his angels and the sons of perdition should sometime be restored [to righteousness].  The Prophet Joseph Smith would not countenance the teaching of this doctrine, and sanctioned the decision of the bishop that any who taught it should be barred from communion.

President Kimball goes on to explain:

In the realms of perdition or the kingdom of darkness, where there is no light, Satan and the unembodied spirits of the pre-existence shall dwell together with those of mortality who retrogress to the level of perdition.  These have lost the power of regeneration.  They have sunk so low as to have lost the inclinations and ability to repent, consequently the gospel plan is useless to them as an agent of growth and development. [3]

            So, here is the picture which emerges:  On the one hand stands our Heavenly Father who is completely free by virtue of the fact that He needs no repentance, for there is nothing about Him which bears changing.  On the other hand stands Satan, who is so completely captivated by his own evil that he has lost all ability to repent.  This distinction gives profound meaning to the admonition given in The Book of Mormon by King Mosiah II, Helaman, and Pahoran, to stand fast in the liberty wherewith God has made us free (Mosiah 23:13, Alma 58:40, Alma 61:21).  Indeed, our Heavenly Father sent His Only Begotten Son into the world to enable us to obtain the freedom in the truest sense, namely, that freedom which He Himself enjoys.  “For behold,” said He, “this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:39).

            Through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our Heavenly Father has laid the plan whereby we can become completely free as He is.  Through the Savior’s atoning sacrifice, our Heavenly Father has eradicated the two barriers, death and sin, which stand between us and the attainment of that freedom. 

            First, through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, our Heavenly Father transformed physical death from a permanent condition into a temporary one.  Jesus Christ “hath abolished death,” Paul wrote to Timothy, “and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10).  By this means, our Heavenly Father, the freest Being in all the universe, designed to free us from a condition in which we otherwise would have been captive to the power of Satan, and to bring us into a condition in which we might be free not only from physical death itself, but also from the fear of physical death.  As Paul explains in the epistle to the Hebrews,

Forasmuch then as the children [of men] are partakers of flesh and blood, [Jesus Christ] also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Hebrews 2:14-15).

            Second, through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, our Heavenly Father similarly has transformed the spiritual death to which we now are subject from a permanent condition into a temporary one, on conditions of repentance, so that we might be made free through the merits of His Son, our Savior.  As Lehi teaches, “the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall.  And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever (2 Ne 2:26). 

Freedom:  Here and Hereafter

            We now come full circle to re-examine the popular claim that freedom is the license to do whatever one wishes, without constraint of any kind.  It is clear that not just any old choice, however freely made, actually makes us free.  We only become free as we choose those things which will make us like our Heavenly Father:  the freest Being in the universe.  If we make any other choice, we become, to that extent, more like Satan, the most captive being in the universe.  Returning to the words of Lehi, men are free

to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.  Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man.  And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself (2 Ne 2:26-7).

            How, then, do we obtain true freedom?  We obtain it by following the simple instruction which Jesus gave to his detractors during His mortal ministry: 

If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.  They answered him, We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?  Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.  And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever.  If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed (John 8:31-36).

The Savior taught His apostles that He would give them genuine, eternal peace— not the kind the world would offer (John 14:27).  The same is true of freedom.  The Savior offers us freedom not according to the world’s definition.  Rather He offers us genuine, eternal freedom, namely, that freedom which He and His Father enjoy. 

            Having so stated, questions linger as to how one might best apply this understanding of freedom to the constraints of the present world, particularly those of the pluralistic Western world of the 21st-century: 

  • To what extent should true disciples of Christ insist on legislation compatible with a Gospel conception of freedom? 
  • At what point, would they be justified in withholding their support from existing arrangements for governance—or in actively participating in revolutionary activities designed to change the form of governance under which they were born? 
  • At what point should they be willing to go into harm’s way and possibly to sacrifice mortal life to defend an imperfect conception of freedom?  

While a lengthy analysis of these and allied questions, which certainly merit discussion, is beyond the scope of the present essay, some valuable insights on the subject become evident in the Savior’s conversation with Pontius Pilate:

Pilate:  “Art thou the King of the Jews?"

Jesus: “Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?"

Pilate:  “Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?"

Jesus: “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence."

Pilate:  “Art thou a king then?”

Jesus:  “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”

Pilate:  “What is truth?”

“And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all." (John 18: 33-38).

Several observations seem to be in order:

  • Since freedom, in the eternal sense, simply cannot be realized fully in the present world, and since it differs in fundamental ways from mortal conceptions of freedom (some of which are outlined above), one need not expect that the eternal and mortal conceptions can be reconciled fully; and in certain respects, there may be nothing to reconcile:  The kingdom in which eternal freedom is found simply is not of this world.  Thus, one need not expect that all of the advantages conferred by that freedom can be enjoyed here.  
  • While it may well be appropriate to fight to preserve certain human conceptions of freedom (see, for example, Alma 48:14), the Eternal King does not call upon His servants to wage human battles in defense of the eternal kingdom, or by extension, of the freedom that is part and parcel of that eternal kingdom.  The Eternal King will wage that battle in His own way, in His own good time, and in circumstances of His choosing.  In the meantime, those who will hear His voice can receive, in whatever measure is now obtainable in their present circumstances, a foretaste of the freedom He offers.
  • One accepts the offer to hear the Savior’s voice by submitting obediently to the principles and ordinances of the Gospel, and by so doing, obtains a foretaste of eternal freedom and its advantages.  As the Savior reasoned with Peter: 

Jesus:  “What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?”

Peter: “Of strangers.”

Jesus:  “Then are the children [of the kingdom] free.  Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, . . . give unto them for me [a half shekel] and thee [a half shekel, as the ‘temple tax’ required in the Law of Moses]." (Matt 17:25-27).

  • As in the case of the Savior’s conversation with Pilate, so as in the case of His conversation with Peter:  The free children of the eternal kingdom are to operate within the constraints imposed by the governance arrangements to which they are presently subject.  “[B]e subject to the powers that be,” the Lord told Joseph Smith, “until he reigns whose right it is to reign, and subdues all enemies under his feet" (D&C 58:22). As Joseph Smith later famously wrote amid ongoing persecution and the denial to him and the early Latter-day Saints of some of their most basic rights as citizens of an ostensibly “free” country, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law" (Articles of Faith, 12).

Although the present arrangements to define and secure freedom are imperfect, the children of the kingdom are called upon to recognize that the prevailing arrangements also are temporary, and that a just and merciful Judge will take into account the strictures places upon all of His mortal children with respect to their free exercise of agency.


            In any case, this Veterans Day, we are reminded of how precious a thing freedom is, how perishable it can be in this life, and how difficult a thing it is, once lost, to regain.  We are reminded of many who have suffered extraordinary privations, as well as death, in order to preserve even the imperfect freedom which we now enjoy.  We might, with profit, additionally remind ourselves that this freedom, even though imperfectly preserved, has been bestowed as a gift from our Heavenly Father so that we might exercise our agency in a way that will lead us, by the power of the Atonement, to the enjoyment of that perfect freedom which He, Himself, possesses.             

            Our fathers’ God, to thee, Author of liberty

            To Thee we sing.

            Long may our land be bright, with freedom’s holy light

            Protect us by Thy might, great God, our King. [4]



[1] On this subject, Brigham Young taught:  “It is supposed by this people that we have all the ordinances in our possession for life and salvation, and exaltation, and that we are administering in these ordinances. This is not the case. We are in possession of all the ordinances that can be administered in the flesh; but there are other ordinances and administrations that must be administered beyond this world. I know you would ask what they are. I will mention one. We have not, neither can we receive here, the ordinance and the keys of the resurrection. They will be given to those who have passed off this stage of action and have received their bodies again, as many have already done and many more will. They will be ordained, by those who hold the keys of the resurrection, to go forth and resurrect the Saints, just as we receive the ordinance of baptism, then the keys of authority to baptize others for the remission of their sins. This is one of the ordinances we can not receive here, and there are many more” (Journal of Discourses 15:137). [Back to manuscript]

[2] Note that in the two preceding references, the scriptures employ the subjunctive mood—a tell-tale sign of counterfactual argumentation. [Back to manuscript]

[3] Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness [Salt Lake City:  Bookcraft, 1969], 125. [Back to manuscript]

[4] “My Country, Tis of Thee,” Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City:  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), 339.


Full Citation for This Article: Mattox, John Mark (2008) "Freedom: Reflections for Veterans' Day," SquareTwo, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Fall),, accessed [give access date].

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COMMENTS: 1 Comment

1) Richard Chun-Ling Chiu replies,

It occurs to me that one of the defining differences between the choices that lead to ultimate freedom and those leading to utter despair are characterized by the congruity of the chosen act and its consequences. Satan and the rest of perdition are in a state of helplessness because the actions they choose will never have the results they desire, indeed, the results they desire are not just accidentally impossible in the sense of not following from the actions they choose, but are often logically impossible in and of themselves. Satan's initial plan for all men to receive salvation without effort is a good example. The happiness and individual potential that characterize salvation are fundamentally linked to our experience of struggle and resulting growth and awareness.

Some may scoff at this by saying that this is nothing more than the "freedom" and "power" offered by claiming to have chosen whatever happens anyway. But the infinite variety and progress of true freedom puts the lie to such vaporings. Just as obedience to the laws of floral biology produces a dizzying array of different harvests according to the choices of diligent gardeners, so too we see a dreadful sameness in the barren failures produced by those unwilling to accept the necessity of proper cultivation. In growing plants, there are only a few things that you really must (or must not) do. With experience and exploration, the available options that really do produce desired results multiplies almost endlessly. This is a principle of power, to desire a real possibility that requires your desire as an essential ingredient of its actualization.

Just as God's Creation wouldn't have just happened anyway, we have the potential to discover what can only exist because of our search to obtain it. But only if we avoid the pitfall of yielding to superficially appealing errors. The courses of action that lead into captivity are easy to detect, for those paths are well trodden and the ends well mapped. The desire to quickly affirm or secure romantic love by violating the laws of chastity is soon betrayed by the heartbreak of shallow commitments broken under the restless drive for a new affair. The desire to acquire material wealth without effort leads to the insecurity of being unable to call possessions one's own. The desire to sway others' opinions by making statements which do not reflect hard realities leads to the utter destruction of personal honor. These courses of action invite with promises of some immediate reward which is fundamentally different from the real effects of such a choice.

One of the most damaging lies is the argument that "the ends justify the means." The problem is not whether or not a wicked action can be justified by some desirable result. That suggestion is just a distraction from the real problem, that choices are irrevocably connected to consequences. Means and ends aren't neatly separable, if they were, it would be pointless to talk about one justifying the other. We do not call a means "bad" because of the action itself, but because it ends in some clear evil.

If we do not develop and nurture our capacity to identify courses of action that promise some good while delivering great evil, we become doomed to easy choices which somehow never work out according to our felt desires. Such is the path to captivity for an entire nation as well. We currently see a government determined to repair a shortage in wealth by simply printing more money, apparently unable to understand that this will only make the nation's money worthless and thus undermine the economy's ability to produce and distribute goods with actual value. Like a student faced with a shortage of cash who "solves" every financial shortfall with the wave of a credit card, in the end we can only rely on our Father to save us. Fortunately, for our eternal good, He is willing to let us learn a hard lesson now so that we may learn how to preserve our freedom by avoiding easy "solutions".

Richard Chun-Ling Chiu.

March 2009