So South Koreans have joined the protest against President Bush's blunt words about their relatives just to the north. Never mind that for nearly two generations, South Korea had readily joined in calling North Korea "evil." But now that for the last several months talks between the two countries have been at least modestly productive, our old ally to the south wants us to be careful not to spoil a good thing.
South Korea, of course, found lots of company around the world in questioning Mr. Bush's candid evaluation of North Korea's government, along with those of Iran and Iraq. It just isn't modern to call anything "evil." To suggest such a thing, well, that is evidence for sure that the person employing such language is himself from another era and has a very antiquated mindset.
My concern, on the other hand, is not that Mr. Bush has connected too many countries on that "evil axis." I worry that in associating them as he has, he lets the world's other 205 nations off too easily.
For, in fact, this evil axis is a very long pole indeed. It weaves itself all over the face of the earth, ultimately connecting every nation and every people. Read the prophet Isaiah, where you'll have to agree it's difficult to sort out the good guys from the bad guys. There are Arabia, Cush, Egypt, the Philistines, Moab, and Assyria. But there also are Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem itself-all named by God as part of the axis of evil of that day. God's warning about impending judgment was not leveled just at those traditionally thought to be His enemies. Even His own people could hear the sentence. Which is why Isaiah had finally to say: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way."
But this is dangerous territory. Even to bring up the subject is for some folks to wander into the old "moral-equivalence" argument: that we can never criticize someone else's wrongdoing simply because we are wrongdoers ourselves. Through the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, I always heard from my liberal friends that criticizing communists was arrogant so long as America had not fully solved its problems with racism and poverty.
I don't, of course, buy that argument. The straightforward admission that "all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God" certainly puts all humans in the same box; we are all, therefore, in one sense, part of the "evil axis." But for nations, as for individuals, it's not whether or not we're wrongdoers; of course we are! It's what we ultimately do with our sinful natures and our evil inclinations that is so critical.
Nations, like individuals, can turn from their wrongdoing when it is exposed. Embarrassed and convicted, they can seek forgiveness both from God and from those who have been wronged. And they seek then to do better than they did before. This, it is fair to say, has long been the American model. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, we have throughout our history been brought face-to-face with our sins of racism, sexism, oppression of the poor at home and abroad, child labor, or abuse of natural resources-and historically, if imperfectly, we have a pattern of dealing with those sins.
Or nations, like individuals, can stubbornly persist in their wrongdoing, multiplying its effect, and generating thick calluses on their souls. How else can you explain a Nazi Germany, a Stalinist Russia, a Maoist China, a Uganda terrified by Idi Amin, or an Afghanistan under the iron fist of the Taliban? In every case, all room for the reflection of a troubled conscience has long since been removed.
That is why right now Iran, Iraq, and North Korea deserve to be categorized together. But they are grouped not so much on a separate and distant axis as they are at the far end of the same axis on which we all exist. We think most accurately when we see ourselves perilously close to that awful condition where we too would make it a habit of stifling the troubled consciences of our own nation.
Make no mistake: A nation that chooses to destroy up to 1.5 million of its unborn babies every year is a nation having deep trouble with its conscience. The calluses on that issue, and on others, are getting thicker.
I agree with President Bush on the propriety of his language about Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Those are societies terrifyingly alien to what America has always stood for. I just wish it were easier to explain how different those nations also are from the America we seek to defend today.