Peace churches exist in South Korea, but their numbers are tiny relative to the numerous Protestant and Catholic steeples that poke above the buildings in every community. The six Anabaptist churches in the nation today trace their roots to a Christian book study group in 1993 that sought a return to early church practices.
Mennonite Central Committee operated a vocational school from 1953 to 1971 as part of its response to the Korean War. But no mission agency sent church planters, and no Mennonite church was established. The book study turned into Jesus Village Church, which was formed in 1996, followed by the Korean Anabaptist Center in 2003. It shares office space with MCC in Chuncheon.
On June 4, after a joint worship service of two Anabaptist congregations, Jesus Village Church and Jesus Heart Church, KAC board chair Sang-Uk Nam explained about education and publishing projects the center carries out to introduce Anabaptist values in Korean society.
“We also do book clubs and work to translate books about Anabaptism and peace, and that enlarges our network,” he said. “I know people who hate churches but want to be a Christian. And those people are often attracted to us.”
Anabaptist numbers continue to grow, but mainstream Christianity either disregards pacifism or defines peace through military strength holding back communism. Still, a collective of organizations has found a way to sow peace within the pro-military context by way of restorative justice work.
Jae Young Lee and Karen Spicher, part of Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Namyangju, work with three entities: the Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute, Korea Association for Restorative Justice, and Korea Peacebuilding Institute. MCC has provided volunteers for the programs, and the initiatives have been supported by Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.
“Restorative justice is a simple way we can introduce Anabaptist concepts in Korean society,” said Lee, executive director of the two institutes and chair of the association. “We work closely with teachers to shift in their classrooms from retribution to restoration.”
The organizations he leads employ 20 teachers, who do about 1,000 trainings a year with teachers. A “restorative apartments” program works to train facilitators to handle noise complaints between neighbors in South Korea’s ubiquitous high-rise apartments, cutting down on calls to the police.
The chief of the national police became interested in restorative justice about four years ago, and now Lee serves on a governmental subcommittee focused on restoration. One of the latest projects is a restorative prison.
“It’s a Christian prison supported 90% by the government, built with donations from megachurches,” Lee said. “In two years, it now has 400 inmates and 120 staff. It’s the first such prison, and we work closely with them.”
Thus far, the anticommunist emphasis in South Korean society keeps restoration from making the leap from schools and prisons to national politics and diplomacy.
Chris Rice, MCC United Nations office director, works with diplomats to make change at a policy level. But he understands that transformation, reconciliation and peace are also critical on a person-to-person level. Based on his previous roles as MCC Northeast Asia representative and co-founder of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, he spearheaded the Northeast Asia Reconciliation Initiative, which held its first forum for Christian reconciliation and peace in Northeast Asia in 2014.
MCC co-sponsors the gatherings, which this year took place June 5-10 at a Catholic retreat center eight miles, as the dove flies, from the demilitarized border zone in Paju, a suburb of Seoul.
“God’s reconciliation is as big as healing the divide between North Korea and South Korea,” he said at the gathering of about 70 Christians from a dozen countries. “And at the very same time, God’s reconciliation is never bigger than the person nearest to you who is most difficult to love.”
He and other speakers stressed the biblical imperative and challenge of loving enemies, sharing tears and hugs as worship crossed national, racial and historical divides.
After an outing to an observatory overlooking the river dividing the two nations, participants visited an “enemy cemetery.” Developed in 1996 in the face of strong opposition, it is the only location in the country offering individual graves for the remains of North Korean and Chinese soldiers, almost all of which are unidentified. No other cemetery for foreign opposition soldiers is believed to exist in the world.
The humble clearing sits in stark contrast to the South Korean cemetery not far away for displaced people from the North who died in South Korea. Row upon row upon row of manicured graves carpet a massive hill, all facing the same direction: the home to which they never returned. The outing concluded with worship at the Catholic Church of Repentance and Atonement.
“People have said repentance is something only North Korea should do,” said Father Jusuk Kang, standing below a massive mosaic created by North Korean artists of Jesus holding a book saying “peace” while flanked by Korean saints. “Today I try to say that repentance is something the church and each of us need to do. It will require both North and South.”