In Praise of Charles Colson

By Alan Bean

I was gratified to see Michael Gerson’s tribute to Chuck Colson in the Washington Post.   Most of the coverage of Colson’s death over the weekend focused on his responsibility for Nixon-era smear campaigns and dirty tricks.  His work on behalf of prisoners and their families was mentioned in passing but received short shrift.

Gerson went to work for Colson as a young man and has always been fascinated by the intensity and thoroughness of his mentor’s conversion.  Consider this lovely paragraph:

Prison often figures large in conversion stories. Pride is the enemy of grace, and prison is the enemy of pride. “How else but through a broken heart,” wrote Oscar Wilde after leaving Reading Gaol, “may Lord Christ enter in?” It is the central paradox of Christianity that fulfillment starts in emptiness, that streams emerge in the desert, that freedom can be found in a prison cell. Chuck’s swift journey from the White House to a penitentiary ended a life of accomplishment — only to begin a life of significance. The two are not always the same. The destruction of Chuck’s career freed up his skills for a calling he would not have chosen, providing fulfillment beyond his ambitions. I often heard him quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and mean it: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.”

I read Colson’s “Born Again” during my first year of seminary and came away impressed.  For all his compassion, he never strayed far from the core convictions of the Republican Party and, for the cause of criminal justice reform, that was a blessing.  Richard Nixon’s self-described “hatchet man” had instant credibility in conservative circles.  They might not be able to listen to the ACLU or the Legal Defense Fund, but they were open to Colson.

How much impact did Colson’s opposition to mass incarceration and the death penalty really have?  For thirty years he was a voice crying in the wilderness as bipartisan support for punitive policies controlled the national agenda.  His message has registered more effectively in the past two years than at any earlier period of his career.  His Prison Fellowship has been instrumental in drafting the “Smart on Crime” movement that has enjoyed considerable success in conservative circles.

Gerson’s column is highly recommended.

3 thoughts on “In Praise of Charles Colson

  1. While I too appreciated Colson’s advocacy on behalf of those imprisoned, his tur-around on the death penalty coupled with his scurrilous attacks on GLBT people in his Prison Fellowship newsletters caused me to stop all support for that organization.

  2. Colson was concerned about the unfair application of the death penalty, even though he thought it permissible in some cases. His stance on gay marriage and a number of other culture war issues was predictably conservative, but that is precisely what gave him credibility in conservative circles. Finding allies who agree with us on every point is difficult. Colson didnt believe that gay marriage would change gay sexual behavior. Why he was so sure, I have no idea. But he lived in a section of the culture where frank discussion of this issue was impossible, so his ignorance on the topic is hardly surprising. Some gay groups have hailed his death with nasty diatribes against the “gay hating Watergate figure”, but that’s an unfair charicature of the man.

  3. Colson tangled with my friend Brian McLaren a few years back, accusing McLaren of caving into “postmodernism”. McLaren’s response is typically gracious:
    “Neither you nor I think that postmodernity or modernity is “the answer.” Rather, we both believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to salvation – for the modern and the postmodern alike. Like you, I think, I am at heart an evangelist. Just as you and your good colleagues in Prison Fellowship have spent decades now entering the tough world of prisons for the sake of the gospel, many of us are entering the challenging arena of postmodern culture. Many people think of prisoners as worthless good-for-nothings, but your evangelistic heart and personal experience won’t let you reach that dismissive conclusion. I believe you can understand when I tell you I feel the same way about my friends and neighbors in postmodern culture as you feel about prisoners. I love them. I seek to treat them with gentleness and respect when they ask me the reasons for the hope I have in Christ. Maybe you could think about me and others like me as “Postmodern Fellowship,” a sister organization to Prison Fellowship, seeking to bring the good news of Jesus to a forgotten, sometimes despised, often misunderstood population.”

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