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"You can run on for a long time ..."

"You can run on for a long time ..."
But no one will escape the justice of God

Irmgard Furchner appears in court Irmgard Furchner in Itzehoe, Germany, on Dec. 20.

By Barton J. Gingerich
January 16, 2023

It's not every day that one sees a near-centenarian convicted for complicity in the murder of thousands of people. Irmgard Furchner, 97, had served as a shorthand typist at the Stutthof concentration camp from 1943 to 1945. Because she was only a teenager at the time, she was tried in juvenile court. The young Furchner served in the very "nerve center" of a death mill in which Nazis murdered Jewish prisoners, non-Jewish Poles, and Soviet soldiers. Judges agreed that Furchner knew what was going on at Stutthof, and Furchner was found complicit in the death of more than 10,500 people. She was sentenced with a two-year suspended jail term.

As one survivor of Stutthof, Manfred Goldberg, regretted, "It's a foregone conclusion that a 97-year-old would not be made to serve a sentence in prison--so it could only be a symbolic sentence." At the same time, "the length should be made to reflect the extraordinary barbarity of being found to be complicit in the murder of more than 10,000 people."

Goldberg's observation that this is a symbolic sentence invites us to sober reflection upon the nature of justice. It is clearly right that Furchner was arrested, brought to court, found guilty, and sentenced with punishment. We feel the satisfaction that something was done to redress a great evil, and yet, like Goldberg, we know that the mild punishment dwarfs the severity of the crime.

Biblically minded Christians should be comforted by the fact that humanity's desire for justice is strong. Thankfully, there are very few honest moral relativists. People indulge relativism when it allows them to misbehave in their desired way, but they immediately renounce it once they or those they care about are harmed by the misbehavior of others. They also renounce relativism when horrific evils like the Holocaust come into the discussion.

Murdering millions of people has to be wrong. Our consciences reel at the lie that such acts would be morally acceptable. We have been hardwired by our Creator to think this way. And yet we and others do revolt against our moral consciences and even harden them, building a spiritual callous against the pricks of God's righteous Law written on the human heart. This kind of seared conscience is the one most comfortable with the most enormous crimes against humanity.

The Final Judgment and eternal damnation for unrepentant sinners probably remains the least popular tenet of Christian teaching, at least in the progressive West.

Searing the conscience of man is the devil's work, and we do well to recognize it as such. When we rejoice in justice being brought against perpetrators of the Holocaust, we are recommitting ourselves to our humanity as God designed it. Of course, even this sense of right and wrong can be twisted into bloodthirsty lynch mobs and vigilantism.

Notably, in the case of Irmgard Furchner, legitimate magisterial authorities followed due process to enact justice. They were working from the precedent of a 2011 case in which a death camp guard was found complicit in the deaths of prisoners. Evidence, testimony, and other features of the traditional legal system found a perpetrator guilty--rights and privileges that were most certainly denied the victims of the Holocaust.

Just as importantly, this case illustrates that the mere passage of time does not redress a wrong or wash away the stain of evildoing. While we much prefer prompt justice, that isn't what always happens. In this case, decades passed before the judgment. Nevertheless, authorities did take the initiative to pursue justice, and the accused--even at her age--fled from her retirement home, vainly hoping to escape the consequences of her wrongdoing, including the shame and social fallout. She felt guilt and shame, even for wrongs from eight decades ago. And yet, we feel the dissatisfaction of the light punishment. It comes up short.

What few seem to realize or say out loud is that this hints at divine righteousness, when the sovereign Lord brings Final Judgment at the end of days. He sees all, knows all, and is completely righteous. Righteousness springs from Him, and in Him righteousness finds its end. No one will escape His justice, and wrongdoers won't get a symbolic hand-slap. They will get the real thing--forever. This symbolic sentence from Germany points to this ominous reality. As the Johnny Cash once sang, "Sooner or later, God'll cut you down."

The Final Judgment and eternal damnation for unrepentant sinners probably remains the least popular tenet of Christian teaching, at least in the progressive West.

But when deeply significant court cases arise, we squeamish westerners sometimes catch a glimpse of and taste for a higher justice that doesn't bend according to our ability to stomach it. When we meditate on these things, may we not just see the wisdom in confession rather than denial or flight, but also the great mercy our righteous God has provided in offering His own Son as the substitute to bear the penalty for our sin.

The Rev. Barton J. Gingerich is the rector of St. Jude's Anglican Church (REC) in Richmond, Va. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Patrick Henry College and a Master of Divinity with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

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