When they heard Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, a shiver of astonishment went through conservative circles in the United States that this man, whom they identify as a prototypical liberal, should have mentioned the existence of evil. I would imagine this is because it has become an easy assumption that liberals blame society for evil, and regard the word itself as an outmoded term used only by people such as former President George W. Bush and his Christian right supporters.

Yet they also knew that Obama is a Christian — his relations with the Christian preacher who converted him to religion were a major subject of news and comment during the presidential primary campaign in 2008. It’s hard to become a Christian without hearing something about sinners and evil.

Bush’s religious statements constantly reflected a conviction that good is identified with the United States and evil with its enemies. His final speech to the nation said: “America must maintain our moral clarity. I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in the world and between the two there can be no compromise.”

True enough in principle, but there is in this a trace of something of which any good Christian should be aware, the parable of the Pharisee and the poor man. The poor man took his place in the back of the synagogue, said to God that he was a sinner, and asked forgiveness. The Pharisee placed himself in the front row and reminded God of all the good things he had done, and his rich gifts to the temple, saying that he thanked God that he was not like other men.

Both Obama and Bush were saying in different ways that we Americans are good and Taliban or jihadists are bad. But the reason we are good is that we are we, and we are justified in punishing them because they are they. But the practicalities of the matter are a little different. Americans are the avengers of the fact that the Taliban before 2001 gave hospitality to Osama bin Laden and his people, who had been driven out of Sudan by American demands on the Sudan government.

The Taliban government in Afghanistan had no grievances against the United States until Washington attacked Afghanistan in 2001 because the Taliban were observing what they considered their code of honor, to give hospitality and protection. Today they are trying to seize back control of their country from the rival Tajik people (of the old Northern Alliance), to whom the United States in 2002 had awarded Afghanistan, in return for their help in taking it away from the Taliban.

Barack Obama doesn’t like the Taliban because they oppress women and attack American invaders. I don’t know what the theologians would make of justice in all this, but it strikes me as a huge, mutually culturally ignorant, self-righteous, fanatically nationalist and ideological clash of societies, instead of any war between good and evil.

David Brooks of The New York Times has written on Obama’s having revived the thought of the great modern Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr, who rescued the American Protestant church in the 1930s to 1950s from the confusions produced by the coexistence of the biblical counsels of pacifism (“turn the other cheek”) and the exigencies of fighting aggressive totalitarian movements (“take up your sword”).

The contemporary error is much simpler. It is that of the proud Pharisee. We Americans wage “just wars” because we are good and righteous people who therefore have the right to use our overwhelming armies, its bombers, rockets, drones and mines, to strike and awe people, invade their countries, whom we know to be bad because they use insurrection, conspiracy and terrorism to resist us, and continue religious practices that displease us.

The problems of just war are not new. In the Western Christian tradition they go back to the theologians Aquinas and Suarez. They said that to be just, a war’s cause must be to vindicate an undoubted and internationally recognized crime; all peaceful means (negotiations) must have been tried in vain; the good to be done must clearly outweigh the evil that will be done by the war; there must be reasonable hope that in the end justice can be achieved for both sides; the means are licit (weapons must be limited and legitimate); and international law must be observed. By these criteria, I don’t see any just wars anywhere these days.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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