Although the song debuted on their 1983 lp, there was a video made in 1988, to inaugurate Michael Stipe's new production company C-00 Films. It begins with Stipe's hand writing numbers on a chalkboard, with the sound of him counting. The music comes in with various street scenes (of what appears to be Manhattan), focusing on homeless people, contrasted with warships in port. The final image is of a navy destroyer, with a caption of the cost of the destroyer: "In 1987, $910 million."
The meaning of the video is rather clear, which is unusual for R.E.M., a band known for its rejecting of clear, understandable imagery or lyrics. In this case, the lyrics' meaning is obscured by the use of the French phrase "combien du temps", which is roughly translated as "how much time?" i.e., how long must society make empty promises about ending things like poverty and disease. At the same time, this is contrasted with the acknowledgement that "not everyone can carry the weight of the world"--we cannot do it alone, and must work as a community.
Finally, the word "passion" here is meant in the sense of "pain"--religious overtones certainly, bolstered by the phrases "empty prayer, emptier mouths." We cannot be Christ, but we can take the message of compassion to the community, the idea of suffering a little to end the suffering of the great world.