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Episode 1203

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor:  Coming up — ethics and the Wall Street crisis.  We explore whether anyone was to blame.  And if so, who?

Also, Barefoot College in India where illiterate women learn enough engineering to light up their villages with solar power.

And Christian and Muslim scholars exploring how the people of their religions can learn to live together without war.

Professor MIROSLAV VOLF (Director, Center for Faith and Culture, Yale Divinity School):  We will either love each other as neighbors, or we won’t be.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  Welcome.  I’m Bob Abernethy, it’s good to have you with us.

Amid a week of economic turmoil, religious voices are rallying for America’s poor and most vulnerable.  Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders gathered in Washington to lobby Congress and the presidential candidates to enact protections for families who’ve been hardest hit.  They said the combination of rising fuel and food prices and the downturn in the nation’s economy are pushing more and more people into poverty.

Reverend LARRY SNYDER (Catholic Charities):  All those things are combining to show that people are coming to us in greater numbers for just the basic necessities.

ABERNETHY:  We’ll have more on ethics and the Wall Street turmoil later in the program.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  Also this week, faith leaders called for increased attention to the suffering caused by Hurricane Ike.  More than 50 people died and millions remain without power and with only limited access to food.  A hundred and eight prominent religious voices signed an interfaith statement calling for the government to provide both short and long-term recovery on the Gulf Coast.  Faith-based groups have also been active in the relief effort.  One Baptist minister said religious groups have been essential in helping people cope with their losses.
Pastor Robert Blakes leads congregations in New Orleans and Houston and has now seen both of them devastated by hurricanes.

Pastor ROBERT BLAKES (New Home Ministries):  We have had experiences in the congregation where we’ve had to kind of deal with people and talk them out, you know, just severe bouts of depression and anxiety, a lot of that.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  Episcopal Bishops have ousted an influential conservative bishop, escalating tensions within the U.S. Episcopal Church.  The vote was 88-to-35 to remove Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan from ministry.  Duncan had previously announced plans to have his diocese secede from the U.S. church because of disagreements with its stance on homosexuality and scriptural interpretations.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  Now, the financial crisis:  more failures, fears, realignment, layoffs on Wall Street, with consequences around the world.  Is anyone to blame?  We explore the ethical issues underlying the financial meltdown with Rebecca Blank, an economist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the book, “Is the Market Moral?”

Dr. Blank, welcome.

REBECCA BLANK (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution and Co-author, “Is the Market Moral”?):  Thank you.

ABERNETHY:  So, in the movie “Wall Street,” we were told that “greed is good.”  If that’s true to what extent was greed responsible for all that’s happened?

Dr. BLANK:  Greed is clearly partially responsible for where we are right now.  But greed is good to most economists.  It’s greed that makes people work harder, be more productive and helps the economy grow.

ABERNETHY:  Greed is good even though it’s a sin?

Dr. BLANK:  Yeah, well greed has certain economic advantages.  It’s hard for an economist not to say that.  But, there’s a level by one in which greed can go too far.   And I being greedy for more goods and to make another buck can stop paying attention to the effects of my action on you.  And that is when greed clearly becomes sinful, even I think in the economic books and can lead to the sort of situation that we’re in right now.

ABERNETHY:  And that’s what happened in these cases.  People were, traders were encouraged to take big risks and not pay attention to all the costs that there would be for people down the line if those risks didn’t pay off.

Dr. BLANK:  That’s certainly true in part, but I will also say that there was also culture where what those traders were doing was what everyone in all the cubicles next to them were doing. And, you know, there’s always the question of, “to what extent is that an excuse — and a justifiable excuse?”  There were also a lot of people at the very beginning of this — the whole sub-prime crisis that started this off — who saw themselves as providing more funds for low-income families.  They were doing a good thing.  So, motives here are very mixed.  I think it’s hard to say this is all about greed.

ABERNETHY:  What about justice?  Was there injustice involved?

Dr. BLANK:  So, you know, we love a world in which the people in the white hats get rewarded and the people in the black hats pay the price.  And that I have to say doesn’t happen very often, particularly in a very complex economy.  We’re in a time of panic right now where people have lost trust in what the banks are doing, what the investment firms are doing — lost trust beyond a level of reasonableness, to be honest.  And, it’s got to be stopped.  And, you know, taking in account that fear and panic in many ways is more important than assigning blame one way or the other.

ABERNETHY:   We all do want to assign blame though.

Dr. BLANK:  Yes, we sure do.

ABERNETHY:   We look for villains.  Are there no villains in this?

Dr. BLANK:  Yes, I do think there are a few villains, but it’s probably too strong a word.  There is you say, there are leadership particularly in some of these banks that were not open at all about what they were doing and how they were bundling . . .

ABERNETHY:   Did they understand what they were doing?  Is there a question of competence here?

Dr. BLANK:  Well, that’s an open question.  I think that is part of a question.  There’s also a real question on the part of regulation.  You know, there were no requirements here for greater openness and greater transparency and of course that’s now what’s being called for.  But that should have been called for long ago.  And it is the role of government to create, if you will, responsible greed to keep boundaries around what people do.

ABERNETHY:  Government perhaps?  And how about the boards of directors and the people who are running some of these companies?

Dr. BLANK:  No, I think there is certainly leadership questions here about competence and understanding and not paying attention to the risks that they were taking.

ABERNETHY:   And trying to put some limit on the greed?

Dr. BLANK:  Yeah.  And of course if you ask these people three and four years ago, “How do you justify multimillion dollar salaries and huge bonuses?,” their answer would have been, “We are in a high-risk industry, so we deserve this.”  Under those circumstances you then can’t feel very sorry when they lose at the other side of the risk.  But of course, there are a lot of people who weren’t in a high-risk industry who are also losing the clerical people, the maintenance folks.

ABERNETHY:   Rebecca Blank of the Brookings Institution, many thanks.

Dr. BLANK:  Thank you.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  We have a story today about a remarkable project in India that teaches rural, usually illiterate women enough engineering so they can construct, install and maintain solar power in their villages.  But, a warning:  there is material here that may be disturbing to men, who are said to be un-trainable and interested only in moving to the big city.
Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Barefoot College in the Indian state of Rajasthan.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  The students are mostly women.  Some are grandmothers.  Hundreds have come through here from villages across India and a dozen other countries to learn how to install and maintain solar energy in rural areas.

Even though it’s sophisticated coursework, the only pre-requisite for admission to the Barefoot College is that there are no pre-requisites, not even to speak the language.

Until we arrived with a translator, these Mauritanian women — who’d been here four months —hadn’t spoken to anyone else in Arabic, the only language they know.  But language is not a barrier to learning, says the College’s founder.

BUNKER ROY (Founder, Barefoot College):  Our job is to show how it is possible to take an illiterate woman and make her into an engineer in six months and show that she can solar-electrify a village.

DE SAM LAZARO:  Bunker Roy, a social activist influenced by Gandhi, founded the Barefoot College in 1972.  He wanted to use traditional knowledge and sustainable technology to help this impoverished desert region.  It began with basics, like finding safe drinking water, then several years later, solar energy.

Mr. ROY:  In 1986, no one ever thought of solar electrification.  It was far too expensive.  But today we have 50 kilowatts of panels on our roofs.  All our 20, 30 computers, electronic machines, telephone exchange — all work off solar.

DE SAM LAZARO:  Today solar energy drives not just the equipment.  This is a larger social experiment to improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest people.  It begins in the classroom run by instructors who themselves have little or no formal education.  Instruction is delivered with a mix of body language, a few essential terms in English, and lots of hands-on practice.

The students create an illustrated manual they’ll take home.  It’s the closest thing to a diploma certifying their training as solar technicians.  But just coming here is an unlikely achievement for students like 56 year-old Sarka Mussara, a widowed grandmother.  She’d never attended school or even left her village in the West African nation of Mauritania.

SARKA MUSSARA (Student, through translator):  At first we did not even have a passport.  We started little-by-little learning the solar energy system.  Day-by-day and little-by-little we were able to put things together.

Mr. ROY (talking with students): I have been to two villages in Mauritania…

DE SAM LAZARO:  Roy was educated at elite Indian schools, on a path to medicine or diplomatic service, before he founded the Barefoot College.  The idea of self reliant learning was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi; also by a legendary American.

Mr. ROY:  Well, it’s Mark Twain who said, “Never let school interfere with your education.” School is something that you learn reading and writing.  Education is what you learn from the family, from the environment, from the community.

DE SAM LAZARO:  Using grants from the U.N. and private foundations, Roy travels extensively in developing countries, seeking potential students.  He doesn’t want city dwellers or — unless they are physically handicapped — men.

Mr. ROY:  We’ve come to the sad conclusion men are un-trainable.  They expect too much.  They are restless.  If they’re young, they’re impatient.  The first thing they ask even before the training starts is, “Do I get a certificate?”   They will use that certificate to get the worst job possible in a city.  Whereas, if we take middle-aged grandmothers to be trained I don’t have that problem of migration.

DE SAM LAZARO:  Their new skills and income should improve these women’s standing at home and in the community — communities that, like much of the developing world are not electrified.

Mr. ROY (to students, through translator): How many houses are in the town?


Mr. ROY:  500.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN STUDENT #2 (speaking to Mr. Roy, through translator):  May God reward you for what you have done because those people did not have any light and now they will have light.

DE SAM LAZARO:  And these women will have an income installing and maintaining solar systems.  They are a common sight in villages near the Barefoot campus where people have replaced lanterns that use dirtier and more expensive fuels.

Mr. ROY:  We said they should pay as much as you pay today for kerosene, for wood, for batteries, for torches, for candles — comes to about $5 a month.  They’re willing to pay $5 a month for the use of a solar light.

DE SAM LAZARO:  Solar has opened new opportunities for work and study, especially for girls. In both the majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities here, girls have traditionally been restricted to household chores.

Mr. ROY:  It is the girls who go and graze the cattle and graze the goats and the sheep. There is a feeling in the family that the boys should be getting better education — better education, whatever that means.  So we started the night schools of Tilonia in 1975, purely from the point of view of attracting more girls who graze cattle in the morning to come to school at night.

DE SAM LAZARO:  Today some 7,000 children attend night school, here and across rural north India.  In song, these girls plead to their parents to allow them to study, to delay marriage until they turn the legal age of 18.  That law is frequently ignored in rural society

PUPPETEER (during performance speaking with kids, through translator): OK, eight and five make how much.

KIDS (through translator): 13.

PUPPETEER:  And 10 plus three?

KIDS (through translator): 13.

DE SAM LAZARO:  Entertainment programs promote the Barefoot College and encourage children to attend school.  There have also been various other campaigns to promote public health and citizen demands for government transparency.  The new economic activity seems to be eroding social barriers.  For example, several women work to create solar stoves, a Barefoot College enterprise.  The solar cookers made at the Barefoot College are a simple but precisely engineered contraption.  These mirrors track and capture the sun’s energy and direct it to a cooker, which really cooks!

For these technicians, most with little or no formal education, working here means they can hope for better things for their children.

SITA DEVI (Solar Technician, trough translator):  My daughter must be educated.  She will be able to do things, to progress so much faster than I can because of going to school more.  For me, for example, it takes so much more time to measure out three centimeters when I’m welding here.   Whereas someone who is educated could do it in no time.

SHAHNAZ BANU (Solar Technician, through translator): In our village, in our community, women were not allowed outside the house.  My husband was reluctant.  But I said, “If we stay behind the veil we won’t have anything to eat.”  Some people object to women working but if we can add income to the household that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

DE SAM LAZARO:  Roy says a key to sustaining rural jobs and development is to use technology that can be managed by the local community, like solar lanterns and technology that’s more familiar like rainwater collectors.

Mr. ROY:  All the roofs of this whole campus are connected underground to a 400,000 liter tank. We collect every drop of rain that walks, that falls on the campus.

DE SAM LAZARO:  For Roy, decentralization is the key. It’s a departure from the typical approach of aid agencies, which he says want to bring big infrastructure and big ideas created by outside experts.

Mr. ROY: If you ask an engineer what they think is the solution, they’ll have one power plant of five kilowatts that you saw on the roofs of the campus and then have transmission lines going to the houses, centralized.  We say “no.”  The solution is decentralized right down to the household level, where the house actually maintains and looks after the solar unit.  It shouldn’t be centralized.  Any technology that brings in dependency on anybody on the outside is not a technology that will work.

DE SAM LAZARO:  So far, Barefoot College has solar electrified some 350 villages across India and dozens more in Sub-Saharan Africa and even war-torn Afghanistan.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Fred De Sam Lazaro in Rajasthan, India.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  Europeans have an increasingly negative view of both Jews and Muslims, according to the Global Attitudes survey by the Pew Research Center.  The new analysis found that Spain showed the largest jump in anti-Semitism.  Forty-six percent rated Jews unfavorably, up from about 21 percent three years ago.  In Russia and Poland, anti-Semitic attitudes grew from about a quarter three years ago to more than a third today.

Negative attitudes toward Muslims were even more prevalent.  Half the respondents in Spain and many rated Muslims unfavorably.  More than a third did so in France.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  Especially since 9-11, major Christian and Muslim scholars and religious officials have been working together to find ways believers in each religion can live side by side in peace.

Next month at the Vatican, the Pope is due to meet leading Muslims.  This past summer, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia sponsored an interfaith conference in Spain.  More such conferences are scheduled in Britain, Jordan and Washington, D.C.

And at Yale University recently there was a major week-long gathering of top Muslim and primarily Protestant leaders.

Nearly 150 Muslim and Christian scholars from 37 countries were invited to the Yale conference by its co-organizers, Professor Miroslav Volf of the Yale Divinity School and Prince Ghazi of Jordan, religious adviser to Jordan’s king.

What they called the “Common Word” that united them was love of God and love of neighbor.  They also acknowledged their common fear of the catastrophe that could occur if Christians and Muslims — half the world’s population — became enemies.

Professor MIROSLAV VOLF (Director, Center for Faith and Culture, Yale Divinity School):  If we don’t learn to live with one another we will not live.  We will either love each other as neighbors or we won’t be.  I believe that it is an insult to me as a Christian to say that I cannot love as neighbor somebody who thinks differently than I do.  Where did we ever get that idea?

ABERNETHY:  The Christian and Muslim scholars spoke openly not only about the ideas they share but about their big, sometimes clashing differences, practical and theological.  For instance, over the nature of God, Muslims disagree strongly with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity — God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Dr. SAYYED HOSSEIN NASR (University Professor of Islamic Studies, George Washington University):  For Muslims, only God can be divine — God in his oneness and his absoluteness and his not having anything like it.  And that means that Islam opposes or even cannot understand the idea of certain Christians concerning the Trinity, in which really you have three divines.

ABERNETHY:  For Christians, terrorism is a major concern.  But Volf notes that violent Islamic extremism is backed by only a very small minority of Muslims, and that Christianity
also has practiced violence.

Prof. VOLF:   Incredible violence has been perpetrated in the name of Christian faith, even though love of God, love of neighbor, are at the heart of that faith.  I think something similar may be said of Islam as well.

ABERNETHY:  A big issue for Muslims is when Christian evangelizing — telling people about the faith — becomes proselytizing, actively trying to convert.  Some Muslims say Christian evangelizing seems like colonialism.

Dr. NASR:  That’s a very, very major problem that cannot be overlooked and cannot be put in the closet.  I think the evangelicals have to rethink this issue.

ABERNETHY:  Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, insists that evangelical Christians must share their faith.  But he says they can do that respectfully.

LEITH ANDERSON (President, National Association of Evangelicals):  We proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and we welcome the opportunity for people to believe.  There’s a difference between that and proselytizing.  And in my definition, proselytizing can be coercive.  It can be manipulative.  I don’t think there is ever an excuse to be disrespectful to other people.

Prof. VOLF:   If evangelism isn’t an expression of love of neighbor, it isn’t Christian evangelizing.  And love of neighbor includes not only what I say to the neighbor but how I say that.  I’m very hopeful, though it’s a thorny, and certainly, an issue right now that tears the communities apart.

ABERNETHY:  Many Muslim believers want to convert Christians to Islam.

Prof. VOLF:   They believe that Islam contains the truth about God.  Islam is not just an option.  Islam is not like one of the many dishes: you like Thai chicken and I like pizza and that’s fine.  They believe Islam to be a matter of truth and not simply a matter of taste.

ABERNETHY:  And so do Christians?

Prof. VOLF:   And so do Christians, exactly.

ABERNETHY:  Many Muslim countries are closed to missionaries, a policy Christians see as a denial of religious liberty.

Prof. VOLF:   Does a person have a right to change his or her own religion? This is a fundamental human right, just like a right to freedom of speech.

ABERNETHY:  Volf says dialogue can help resolve many differences, and that even when it can’t, Christians and Muslims can still get along.  On issues such as global warming and helping the poor, Volf believes Christians and Muslims can and should work together.  Meanwhile, he says his personal encounter with Islam has strengthened his Christianity.

Prof. VOLF:   I will tell you very, quite honestly after my engagement with Muslim friends, I pray more than I used to pray.  My prayer life has been enriched by my encounter with some Muslims, encouraged by their devotion and also enriched by the ways in which they pray.  Have I compromised in this way at all?  No, to the contrary, I’ve gone deeper in my faith and I think my love for God has been deepened and made more intelligent in a sense, more rich by that very encounter.

ABERNETHY:  As he helped close the conference, Volf returned to his view of what’s at stake.

Prof. VOLF (speaking to conference participants):   Either love or death — when you think about it, this is the challenge that we face today.  Let us learn to love all our neighbors and let us do that in the name of our common future and in the name of our one God.

ABERNETHY:  Prince Ghazi read the final conference document, affirming, among other points, that God is absolute, his love infinite; and that everyone has a right to the preservation of life, dignity and religion.

Prince GHAZI (Special Advisor to H.M. King Abdullah II, Jordan, speaking to conference participants):  Have we anybody who will not sign his name to this of the participants?

ABERNETHY:  No one spoke.

Prince GHAZI:  Thank you.

ABERNETHY:  None of the participants claimed resolution of their differences.  But, in Prince Ghazi’s words, they hoped their joint commitment to loving God and neighbor will help all religions heal, not wound.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  As Muslims around the world observe the holy month of Ramadan, President Bush hosted his annual Iftar dinner at the White House.  More than 100 Muslim leaders joined the president to break their daytime fast.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  That’s our program for now.  I’m Bob Abernethy.  There’s much more on our Web site, including political coverage and analysis on our “One Nation” page.  Audio and video podcasts of our program are also available.  Join us at

As we leave you, scenes from Pope Benedict’s trip to Lourdes, France, last week.  Benedict celebrated the 150th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a young peasant girl.


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