Dreaming of a world without war
On a hot summer day in August 2002, I reported to the Nonsan Basic Training Center in South Korea for a two-year army service. I was 23, two years older than the average age of the new recruits. I had to swallow my pride and salute the younger ones. Although this went against my culture where the younger always pays respect to the older, it was a well-understood reality in the military. But this was the least of my concerns. A greater burden was fast brewing in the horizon that would test my faith and challenge my beliefs. While my fellow cadets were in basic training and would kill even for a bite of a Choco Pie (famous Korean snack), I had to struggle with a basic issue: holding firm to my faith or carrying arms. The very notion of conscientious objection to carrying a weapon had been a sensitive issue among Seventh-day Adventists. In 2002, a significant number of conscientious objectors were found among our church members in South Korea. One of my friends, Young Chul Yoon, was already serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence for refusing to carry a weapon. I began to ponder seriously about the social and personal consequences that I must face should I choose to take the same narrow path by refusing to carry arms. I toiled and struggled with this decision because I lacked the confidence to carry out my conviction. I kept reading the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy books that were available in the military training center. I experienced greater mental agony as I held the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. As I read about all the warriors of faith, hope and inspiration started to spring up within me. A renewed sense of confidence came over me.
After the six weeks of training at the Nonsan Basic Training Center, we were assigned to different military bases around the country. I was sent to the Wontong base in Gangwon Province (wontong in Korean is homonymous with dissatisfaction and dismay). It was only early November, and the base was already frigid and covered with snow. Every day had its share of dreadful situations with the North Korean military. Once in a while, South and North Korean soldiers would fire at one another, and tension would escalate. Despite all the difficulties and concerns, I had a feeling that God must have a special role for me, and I found peace in my heart and was not afraid.
The Sabbath-keeping issue was another burden I had to face. This was especially an issue during the first two weeks, since I served on the front line. There was serious, visible tension between my captain and myself, a fearless private. The tension between us was relentless and nerve-racking. I would remind myself, “If God is with me, who can be against me?” By the grace of God I was allowed to keep the Sabbath, not in a nice and warm church environment, but in a cold and dangerous mountain. Anyway I was happy that I could praise God, study His Word, pray and call upon His name. I worshiped by myself and was filled with tears not of sorrow, but of gratitude and delight.
As the Sabbath-keeping issue was resolved, there still remained the issue regarding my noncombatant army service. As I opened the Bible and read one of the commandments, “‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” I could not help but correlate that verse to our North Korean neighbor. I was stuck with this dilemma of being a Christian and a soldier. I had no choice but to pray. I sincerely prayed that God would guide me in the right direction in this matter. Soon thereafter, I came across a passage from The Great Controversy that helped me to crystallize my decision. “When warned against going unarmed among savage and hostile tribes, he [Dr. Wolff] declared himself ‘provided with arms’- prayer, zeal for Christ, and confidence in His help. ‘I am also,’ he said, ‘provided with the love of God and my neighbor in my heart, and the Bible is in my hand’” (p. 361). Upon reading this, my heart was pounding and I cried out: “God, is this what you want me to do? Are you telling me to put down my gun?” The phrase “love your neighbor,” the North Koreans, kept echoing in my mind. After three days of much agony and prayer, I finally came to realize that in God’s entire creation only human beings worry about their life. I made a decision not to protect myself with any weapon any longer. “God, I will surrender myself to you. Please accept me and help me.”
My refusal to bear arms led to a trial and imprisonment. The trial and the sentence were reported by a news service as shown below:
Court Martial and Military Prison (newspaper article)
“Any last words?” asked the judge.
Private Hee Jae Im immediately replied, “I have decided to unarm myself according to the dictates of my conscience. I am not implying that my faith is at its pinnacle or that I have been a fervent Christian all of my life. But having lost my parents at an early age, I have always held a tender place in my heart regarding death. I cannot in good conscience bear arms in this country–my country–that is so divided. I choose rather to pray to God for the reunion and salvation of these two nations. I cannot say how many more soldiers will make decisions like mine to refuse to carry arms. But it is my undying hope and prayer that this country will amend its law to respect every form of conscientious objection. I sincerely wish that no one will ever experience the pain that I had to endure.”
His voice began to shake as tears were welling up in his eyes.
Having inquiries for the other three accused, the court held an intermission for 30 minutes.
Hee Jae Im turned his face back towards his friends sitting in the audience. As his eyes met his friends, he quietly smiled at them. His friends easily noticed that Hee Jae’s eyes were bloodshot. Hee Jae passed a stack of letters to one of his friends.
Many of our ancestors of great faith may have faced trials and afflictions in the likes of Hee Jae who is standing inside the courtroom awaiting the verdict as the accused who claims innocence. What made our ancestors of faith great was their decision to keep the faith while most believers simply grumble in times of despair. In those fleeting seconds that felt like years, Hee Jae closed his eyes. Whatever may be racing through his mind now, we may not know, but it is possible that he was thinking about those ancestors who remained true and faithful with their eyes firmly fixed on God.
The court resumed, and reached a verdict.
Very quietly, everyone held their breath to listen to the judge deliver the sentence.
“Hee Jae Im is sentenced to serve one-and-a-half years in prison with additional 73 days of military imprisonment!”
–Cited in Adventist Weekly News (March 19, 2003). Reported by Bum Tae Kim.
My refusal to bear arms
The story behind my final decision to refuse to bear arms began in my childhood. I was very young when I lost both my parents. My mother passed away when I was only 11 years old. Four years later, my father passed away. Death suddenly shattered the blessings of a happy family. However, as I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, God always remained faithful to me as my guiding light. I know that He had led me to become a theology student (I am the only Adventist in my immediate and extended family).
During my sophomore year in college, the pain of being without my parents burdened me a great deal, and I started to question my miserable life: “Why should my life be miserable like this? Why me, Lord? Why?” The death of my parents left a deep mental scar on my mind and overwhelmed me. Since then I had been struggling with the problem of death. The childhood trauma is perhaps one reason why I looked at life as a precious gift from God. And my bitterness toward death turned into an opportunity to give life to others instead of death. Refusing to take up arms was just the first step in practicing that opportunity.
Some Christians say that taking up arms does not necessarily mean “to murder.” They may be right. However, when I decide not to carry arms, I’m actually making a strong confession and proclamation that I would rather live for others than bring about an end to someone’s life.
Some justify war killings as necessary to protect their family, neighbors, and churches. But is it ever right for human beings to kill others for any reason whatsoever? Is it right for Christians, who claim to be excited about the return of Christ Jesus and the future life, to kill someone in order to save theirs? It is unfortunate that everyone in this life is subject to death. With the inevitability of death, should we not, especially as Christians, avoid being the cause of someone else’s death?
Even at this moment I find that I am self-centered in many ways, and I am disappointed at myself from time to time. Yet, I am holding on to the faith that the Lord will continually renew my strength. I believe that God is the only One who is perfect and He is strong enough to change my life. It is my fervent prayer that I will realize His will in my life and practice it daily until our Father in heaven returns in glory to take us to our heavenly home, i.e., a world without war. My wish for all is to take courage and stand firm for Christ, although the heavens fall.
Hee Jae Im is now a student at the Graduate School of Theology, Sahmyook University, Seoul, Korea.