PARIS — As the slaughter continues in Gaza, as bodies rain from the sky over Ukraine, as barbaric jihadists conquer swathes of Syria and Iraq, butchering their enemies and erasing the history of the Bible and of humankind, it seems empathy, sympathy, diplomacy and prayer are utterly unable to meet the demands of common humanity.
At such times, even those who are not especially religious might be moved to ask, in all seriousness, or perhaps in bitter irony, “What would Jesus do?” And as Pope Francis spoke to the multitude on Sunday in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, he came as close to answering that question as he or anyone else is likely to come.
He did not wipe away the tears, but the long lenses of the television cameras showed him blinking them back behind his glasses. As Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley has said, Francis is “a man who speaks in gestures.” And this was an important one. Francis wept, and it is fair to say that Jesus, too, would be weeping today.
Can something come of that? The answer, at first, is not obvious.
Some reports said that Francis was departing from his script, but that is not entirely true—he was departing from the script he gave his aides for publication, and they seemed, afterwards, unprepared and unable to explain what the pontiff had done. He had talked about the anniversary of World War I, and he had mentioned the fighting in the Middle East, in Iraq and in Ukraine. And then Francis was reading the words that moved him, it seemed, almost beyond his ability to speak:
"Never war, never war,” he said. “I am thinking, above all, of children who are deprived of the hope of a worthwhile life, a future. Dead children, wounded children, mutilated children, orphaned children, children whose toys are things left over from war, children who don't know how to smile.” This was the moment when the tears came. “Please stop,” said Francis. “I ask you with all my heart, it's time to stop. Stop, please!”
But who will listen?
Jesus wept when he saw the tears of the women in his family lamenting the death of his friend Lazarus before, finally, he brought Lazarus back from the grave. No one in this world will bring back to life more than a thousand people killed in Gaza, almost 300 killed on flight MH17 or the tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands — who’ve died in Iraq since 2003.
No. The Lazarus miracle is not there for us.
Jesus wept as well when he approached Jerusalem, knowing that the people he had worked so hard to inspire and protect would betray him and crucify him: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!”
How many statesmen who have tried and failed to save Israel and the Palestinians from each other—and from themselves—must have heard the echo of those words.
No. Words are not enough. And war is not the answer. Who does not understand that fact after so many wars fought in this century for so little purpose? “Violence cannot be overcome with violence,” Francis told the multitude a week ago. “Violence is overcome with peace!”
But how does that work, exactly? Part of the answer lies with people on the ground and their determination to conduct massive and relentless, but nonviolent, resistance. And part of the answer depends on whether the rest of the world will take note.
There was a time when President Barack Obama seemed genuinely to believe in the power of popular resistance. In his speech about “a new beginning” in the Arab world just over five years ago in Cairo, he preached to the Palestinians—and I use the word “preached” advisedly:
“Palestinians must abandon violence,” Obama said. “Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered.”
But when Palestinians did protest peacefully; when they did march; when they did endure the clubs of the dreaded Israeli Border Police—who paid attention to their moral authority? In truth, almost nobody: not the international press, not the public, and not Obama. When they called for boycotts of Israel—the economic boycott having proved a decisive tool in South Africa, for instance—White House equivocations satisfied no one. The White House coordinator for the Middle East told a conference in Tel Aviv this month that “the United States will do all it can to fight boycotts and other delegitimization efforts,” but Israelis needed to understand that if the peace efforts failed, “our ability to contain the damage is limited, and becoming more and more challenging.”
In Iraq, if the world had been more supportive of peaceful Sunni efforts to demand rights from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian government, and he had been forced to listen, it is doubtful the Sunni tribes would have thrown their support behind the religious extremist who now calls himself the Caliph Ibrahim and talks about conquering the world.
Yet, for all their disappointments, popular and peaceful resistance movements remain a powerful force that threatens even the most canny and the most ruthless tyrants.
In Egypt, Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi came to power a year ago on the crest of a huge popular uprising against the elected but incompetent government of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Having claimed the legitimacy given him by huge support in the streets, al Sisi banned demonstrations that might turn against him.
But the outstanding case in point is Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Nobody fears the so-called “colored revolutions,” such as the Orange one and its successor the Maidan in Ukraine, more than Putin does. Typically, he talks about guaranteeing freedom of expression, even as he denounces those who express themselves against him as “ultras, terrorist elements and people with extremist views” and has them thrown in jail.
One of Putin’s great frustrations as he’s tried to partition Ukraine is that his efforts to emulate the tactics of the peaceful protests against Russia in Kiev have found so few supporters to march in the streets of Donetsk or other eastern Ukrainian cities. As The Daily Beast’s Anna Nemtsova reported last week, the besieged pro-Russian partisans of partition, desperate for heavy weapons to make up for lackluster popular support, are warning Putin that if they’re defeated he may soon face a popular revolution in Moscow.
When Pope Francis said “violence is overcome with peace,” there were no tears in his eyes. He saw very clearly that what he said can be the truth, and, in the end, that it must be.