Blessed Are the Peacemakers

The New Year is a time for resolutions - another chance to help bring about a better world. This week, Fr. Pat Cunningham, a Columban missionary serving in Korea, invites us to consider how we can use our time and talents to be peacemakers. Fr. Pat shares his experience on Jeju Island, protesting the construction of a naval base. Then, we suggest four ways you can help bring peace to our world.

Protest on Gureombi

Back in February, 2012 I attended the 20th annual ‘Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space’ conference in Gangjeong, Jeju Island, the location for the construction of a controversial naval base. This pivotal moment introduced me to the whole world of international solidarity and the importance of engaging in civil disobedience in calling attention to a grave injustice inflicted by a central government on an island people, which uses the full force of state violence to enforce its will on what it thought a defenseless people.

Little did the state know that villagers and activists alike would resist using every nonviolent means at their disposal. Crucial to the longevity and persistence of the peace movement in Gangjeong village was the presence and support of international peace activists, organizations, reporters and media alike who helped keep the struggle at the forefront of people’s imaginations and in turn encouraged many prominent international peace activists to visit. 

The incredible energy, coupled with the spirit of peaceful resistance that the international visitors brought, reassured the villagers that their struggle to reclaim Gangjeong from the war machine was not just their own separate, isolated struggle but was the struggle of all concerned global citizens. The extraordinary spirit of the villagers left an indelible impression. The hospitality and warm welcome afforded to all the international participants was extraordinary.

Each night after a long day of workshops and resistance at the entrance to the navy base, there was a candle light vigil interspersed with song, dance, and words of hope and encouragement from the international guests assuring the villagers that they were not alone in their struggle. Prayer, song, and dance as well as wonderful artwork by members of the Gangjeong community has proved to be a vital cog in the machinery of nonviolent resistance to militarism and the naval base.

The timing of the Global Network conference in 2012 and the decision of the organizers to hold it in Gangjeong as an expression of International solidarity with the village immediately prior to the onset of the destruction of the Gangjeong coastline was critical in helping to raise international awareness. Conference organizers decided to close the conference with a joint protest and direct action resulting in the arrest and detention of 20 Korean and International peace activists.

There are approximately 83 US bases in South Korea alone. We were informed that the building of the base in this once peaceful village of Gangjeong was part of a wider geopolitical strategy on the part of the US government to encircle China and Russia, using the Gangjeong base as a port of call for its warships and Aegis destroyers (manufactured by Bath Iron Works in Maine, USA), and outfitted with missile defense systems. 

At the time of the conference, our primary focus was to prevent Jeju Island and Gangjeong village from becoming the focal point of any future military confrontation that would have disastrous consequences for the entire region.

We witnessed firsthand the already devastating effects the construction of the base is having in terms of dividing the once close-knit community, driving a wedge between families, onetime friends, and neighbors into pro base and anti-base factions. By February 2012, the coastline was strewn with concrete casings, tetra pods, earth moving equipment, and cranes scattered across the beautiful landscape. The dreadful eyesore and environmental destruction was about to get a lot worse with the blasting of Gureombi rock which begun on March 7 (an area roughly 1km long and 150m wide) and proceeded as planned over the weeks that followed.

Our goal was to engage in acts of civil disobedience in an effort to voice our opposition to the destruction of the coastline and resulting toxic pollution, which despite efforts to contain it caused untold damage to the soft coral reef and marine life off the coastline. It could possibly render to extinction the already rare species of red feet crab and destroy the habitat and playground of the ‘pink nosed’ dolphin.

The rock of Gureombi has sacred significance for the villagers, as it was a ‘living rock’ and therefore intimately tied up with their identity as a village people – a place where people from the 400-year-old village used to celebrate their ceremonial rites. ‘Gangjeong is Gureombi’ we were told more than once. Divisions in the community coupled with the ongoing daily tensions that the villagers have been subjected to are tearing away at the fabric of this once close-knit community. The people have been unable to conduct their ceremonial rites for many years.

The celebration of Mass on the rock had been a regular feature of the resistance prior to the blasting. It was celebrated as normal that Sunday afternoon, although with a difference. This time a major feature was the presence of many members of the Global Network and other international activists among the many local villagers who made the 25 minute trip by kayak out to the coastline. Entrance from land had been cut off despite the best efforts of the designated land group. 

The Mass on Gureombi rock led by Fr. Moon on that afternoon sought to bring hope and determination to the spirit of peaceful resistance among all those in attendance. Angie Zelter, from Great Britian, spoke incredibly movingly from across the razor wire. In her address to the crowd, she mentioned the incredible irony of how in order to address the security needs of their people, governments only think about ramping up their so-called military ‘defenses’ and increasing military expenditures. By ratcheting up military tension. They ultimately leave no prospect of providing real security, which can only be found in people’s access to healthy food, water, medical care and education. 

It was extraordinary to see how life-giving and hopeful the celebration was on that Sunday afternoon for the numerous people gathered from around the world. Many faith traditions, and many people of faith and no religion, all gathered together under one cause, all singing from the same hymn sheet calling on the Korean and US governments to stop this destruction. We were singing as concerned global citizens seeking to live in peace without the constant threat of war hanging over our heads.

It was heartbreaking then to see a beautiful place being desecrated as part of preparations for war, but we found hope from the spirit of the celebration and proceeded to partake in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. We then proceeded in determined fashion, buoyed by reserves of energy received from the ‘celebration’ on the rock.

I was given a lecture on what constitutes being a missionary here on a religious visa and was told in no uncertain terms that if I continued with my work in Gangjeong I would be in breach of the national security law. The activist community in Gangjeong were often red baited and labelled as being North Korean sympathizers (among other things) and on a number of occasions the largest peace NGO, Solidarity for Peace and Reunification Korea (SPARK) had its offices in Seoul raided in an attempt to impede and suppress their work in Gangjeong.

Undeterred, I and many others continue with our activism and being in the fortuitous position as an international missionary based with the Columbans in Seoul and having a house in Jeju city, that allows us the opportunity to welcome and provide hospitality to International activists from overseas en route to and from Gangjeong. 

4 Ways to Be a Peacemaker

Prayer is food for the journey. It nourishes us so that we have the strength and the energy to go out into the world and be the peacemakers Jesus calls us to be (Matthew 5:9).
We can pray in many ways. As Fr. Pat’s story shows, Sunday mass can be a refreshing and joyful experience. We can also prayer over scripture (James 3:18 or 1 Peter 3:9-11 or Matthew 26:47-56), the writing of the Saints, or the wisdom of our Holy Father.

There are many different peace issues that you can get involved with – nuclear disarmament, demilitarization, and anti-racism, to name a few. Pick one or two subtopics and do a bit of research. You don’t necessarily need to be an expert on your subtopic(s), but some foundational knowledge is necessary. As a starting place, consider reading our backgrounder on “Peace and Demilitarization.”

Governments have a responsibility to promote peace among nations and peace within them. Working for structural change must be part of an integrated strategy; otherwise, we will only be addressing surface-level issues. Policies of war, free trade, and environmental over-consumption destabilize communities and the natural world, creating the breeding ground for conflict. We need to be in regular contact with our government officials, letting them know that we want real solutions for peace. One action you can take today is to urge Congress to limit the President’s power to launch a nuclear war. For decades now, there has been no oversight over our President’s ability to launch these deadly weapons. No one person should have absolute authority to deploy nuclear arms.

Like prayer, belonging to a “peace community” can be inspiring and strengthening. Our efforts are so much more powerful when we do them together. 
Consider getting involved in a peace community. Pax Christi USA has local chapters throughout the country that do great work. To find a chapter in your area, contact Pax Christi here. If you are interested in starting your own group, they have a toolkit to help you get started. You can also get involved with Pax Christi International.


Weekly Reflections on Justice & Columban Spirituality is produced by the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach. We hope these reflections help to guide you on your own spiritual journey working toward justice, peace, and the care of creation.

Fr. Pat Cunningham is a priest of the Missionary Society of St. Columban. He currently serves in South Korea, where he has been for many years.