Global leaders should turn to words of Pope John XXIII in their search for Gaza peace solution, says Joseph Kelly

For a long time there has been a sense around the country that our political leaders are becoming increasingly disconnected from the realities of everyday life. As poverty, marginalisation and social tensions worsen – and old socio-political boundaries become increasingly meaningless – anticipating the zeitgeist has become increasing difficult for our lawmakers.

Last night’s by-election results were a good case in point. Labour leader Kier Starmer talked about the results being “history in the making” – this might just be the case but it’s no portend of revived fortunes; the result came on the back of 20,000 Tories not bothering to turn out on the night, and Labour managing to scramble together just a few hundred additional votes. There was a 44% turnout and Labour got 55% of that vote – so a mandate to govern from less than a quarter of the people they will now claim to represent.

Sadly this kind of scenario is nothing new in modern politics, in fact it’s fairly typical of the non-mandates that so many countries now find themselves governed by.

In the USA President Joe Biden can only claim the support of around a third of the US population, and in Israel Benjamin Netanyahu governs with the support of just 17% of the population. It’s hard to be exact in the case of Palestine and Hamas but it’s estimated that they command the support of around 45% of the population.

The base point here is that most modern political systems govern their populations with a minority mandate that is declining relentlessly. Yet these leaders continue to claim they speak for their peoples when making decisions, be it on domestic policy that affects their citizens directly, or in broader global matters that can have more far-reaching and devastating consequences for any number of people.

It also seems to be an odd irony of politics that the more a government loses touch with its populace, the more it tends to claim it has a representative status.

This disconnect is particularly evident in the current Middle East crisis, where two governments have long committed to each other’s mutual destruction in the name of their civilian populations, the majority of whom want to have none of such violence and brutal division.

It may seem utopian, but it leads one to wonder if many of the worst human conflicts might have been avoided altogether if the general citizenry had been left to its own devices?

Unfortunately, warfare and strife isn’t only just incredibly lucrative, the creation of national insecurity is one of the most effective mechanisms to ensure that populations continue to look to governments for safety and resolution, even when the tumult is of their own government’s making.

When Pontiffs and Christian campaign groups say “no to war”, it’s no passive response to a seeming inevitability of human conflict, it’s a radical call to an alternative form of interaction and human dialogue. All wars come down to a failure of dialogue. As Pope Francis said just a few days ago: “War solves no problems. It only sows death and destruction, increases hatred, multiplies revenge. War erases the future, it erases the future.”

One only has to listen to the language of our world leaders surrounding the dreadful situation in Gaza to see that not only are they utterly detached from reality and have no real concept of human suffering, but the very nature of warfare is akin to a game. Just two days ago when Joe Biden was in Israel with Benjamin Netanyahu he said of the missile that struck the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza, killing more than 500 people: “Based on what I have seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you.”

Yesterday, Prime Minister Sunak also sidled up to the Israeli prime minister and announced in gushing terms that he (and therefore by inference you and me) will not only stand by Israel in its “darkest Hour”, but “we want you to win.”

For two global leaders to couch what is going on this week in Gaza in sporting terminology illustrates graphically the disconnect between the politics of global conflict, and the terrible realities of war for those at the receiving end of it. Much of this radiates from the sad reality that warfare has not only become a very useful mechanism for keeping populations in line, but presents unique and highly profitable opportunities for commerce.

Way back in January 1961, US President Dwight D Eisenhower used his farewell address to warn the US population of what he viewed as one of its greatest threats: the military-industrial complex composed of military contractors and lobbyists perpetuating war.

He warned that “an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” had emerged as a hidden force in US politics and that Americans “must not fail to comprehend its grave implications”.

Just two years later Pope John XXIII released his encyclical Pacem in Terris, On Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty. The encyclical is unique in the Catholic cannon for a number of reasons – it was the first encyclical that a pope addressed to “all men of good will”, rather than just Catholics, and its continued importance and relevance means that it’s held in the UN archives. It was also the first encyclical to be published in its entirety in the New York Times, and just a few years later was the subject of a United Nations conference attended by more than 2,000 states people and intellectuals.

Many reasons are given for the radical nature of Pacem in Terris, and the document continues to occupy scholars and theologians worldwide who are seeking to explore and define the changing and difficult relationship between the individual person and the state.

For me the premise of John Paul XXII’s argument is that in modern society really we should recognise and support the concept of government and the state, but any legitimacy the states claims derives from its fundamental commitment to the common good.

48. … Authority is before all else a moral force. For this reason the appeal of rulers should be to the individual conscience, to the duty which every man has of voluntarily contributing to the common good. But since all men are equal in natural dignity, no man has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for He alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart.

49. Hence, representatives of the State have no power to bind men in conscience, unless their own authority is tied to God’s authority, and is a participation in it.

And again …

51. Governmental authority, therefore, is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since “it is right to obey God rather than men.”

In essence, governments are to be respected and supported when they are working to the common good, but can cannot demand obedience or allegiance if they are acting contrary to the basic principles of common morality.

More than half a century after Eisenhower’s bleak warning, and John XXIII’s call for governments to follow the laws of God in all they do, the sad truth is that most of the citizens of this planet are in some way or another in what seems a perpetual state of war.

Some of this is the material conflict of weaponry and death, some of it is the weaponry of poverty, exclusion and deprivation. All of it comes from the mismanagement and moral failings of those who govern us. It’s also a tragedy that those who suffer most from warfare, are those who glorify it least. For instance, it’s estimated that 75% of those who fall in wars are from working class backgrounds; people who don’t need war but pay the price of it.

One only has to look at the events unfolding in Gaza to see all the very threads that both Eisenhower and John XXIII warned about – as Pacem in Terris states quite directly:

93. There may be, and sometimes is, a clash of interests among States, each striving for its own development. When differences of this sort arise, they must be settled in a truly human way, not by armed force nor by deceit or trickery. There must be a mutual assessment of the arguments and feelings on both sides, a mature and objective investigation of the situation, and an equitable reconciliation of opposing views.

Such a plea is profoundly logical, but it’s a million miles away from the kind of confrontational prejudices and political machinations that have been going on around the Gaza crisis. While two nations’ leaderships throw blame and false accusations at each other, and world leaders descend with filling their state coffers in mind, the death toll just rises and rises.

Despite his eloquent peas for disarmament, dialogue and world peace, Pope John XXIII knew this was no easy objective.

“The world will never be the dwelling place of peace, till peace has found a home in the heart of each and every man, till every man preserves in himself the order ordained by God to be preserved,” he noted (Pacem in Terris, 165).

Perhaps Pope John XXII was also thinking in some way of Luke 4:13-15, and the return of Jesus to Galilee after he had rejected all the devil’s ways in the Judaean desert – a very appropriate metaphor for what needs to happen in that troubled region today.

“He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him,” says Luke. Please God the protagonists in Gaza and their global cohorts will ask themselves why Jesus attracted so much attention and respect on his return to Galilee – and may realise that the ways of God will always mean far more to humanity than the ways of man.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian