Courtesy of The Mennonite

Sang-Min Lee, center, was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector in South Korea. He was released on August 5 of this year. Also pictured are Jae Young Lee, left, the director of the Korea Peacebuilding Institute and a fellow member at Sang-Min’s church, and Karen Joy Spicher, Jae Young’s wife, and their daughter.

Recently I had the privilege of meeting a group of women from Colombia who work with conscientious objectors in their country. The organization, Justapaz, works with the Mennonite Church of Colombia from an Anabaptist perspective, alongside other churches and social organizations. They support young men at different stages of the conscientious objection process if they are detained, imprisoned or if their cases go to court.

In Colombia the duration of military service depends on the person’s educational degree and family social status, favoring the wealthy and well-educated. While the law requires two years of service, others have to serve longer than that.

I am from South Korea, where it is also a requirement for men to do military service for two years. If they choose not to serve, they become conscientious objectors and are sent to prison. They live with the label of “conscientious objector” for the rest of their lives, which can impact their ability to find a job, restrict other freedoms such as marriage and even limit their ability to travel abroad.

Conscientious objectors in both South Korea and Colombia deal with similar problems of living with the “objector” label because their faith and conscience lead them to reject military service. Reinaldo Aguirre, a young conscientious objector who is supported by Justapaz, testified that conscientious objectors “owe our absolute loyalty, not to a nation or a state government but to the Son of God, who teaches us to love our enemies, to do good to those who mistreat us and to pray for those who wish to do us harm.”

There was a recent case of conscientious objection by Sang Min Lee from South Korea in March 2014, who is part of Grace and Peace Mennonite Church. He was sentenced to jail for 18 months due to his stance as a conscientious objector.

In other countries, military service is optional. Alternative forms of service have been readily adopted in many countries, allowing people to serve their neighbors and their country without taking up arms.

Personally, I think an alternative system is needed for people who have a different view of the military and all that it entails. Justapaz, a partner of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), is advocating to the Colombian government to create a law that would allow young men to participate in alternative service instead of joining the military. Countries like Colombia and South Korea need peace builders more than they need soldiers.

Additional MCC resources on conscientious objection are available online.

Third Way also has information on conscientious objection.

SunJu Lee is a recent graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and was an intern this summer in the MCC U.S. Washington Office. Originally published on July 31, 2015. Reprinted with permission from Third Way Cafe.