In the first hours after news broke that Chuck Colson passed away Saturday, headlines referred to him in either neutral or slightly derogatory tones with reference to the Watergate era. Most missed his most important role in Christian ministry. As if a decades-long witness to the grace of conversion was a mere footnote to the fall that preceded it.
Here’s a sanctimonous snip from nearly four decades ago that endured in much of big media.
Before Colson went to prison he became a born-again Christian, but critics said his post-scandal redemption was a ploy to get his sentence reduced. The Boston Globe wrote in 1973, “If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everyone.”
Indeed there is. Rich Lowry shed light recently.
Colson, 80, is a giant of our time. He is a reminder of the true meaning of redemption, a concept that has been debased in our Tilt-a-Whirl media culture that can’t distinguish between notoriety and fame. In contemporary America, redemption begins sometime between the first check-in into rehab and the first cable-TV interview, and reaches completion when everyone gets distracted by someone else’s attention-grabbing disgrace.
Colson’s personal redemption was wrenchingly sincere, a shattering experience that brought him through that great narrative arc of conversion: worldly success, crushing humiliation, and then victory in terms he never would have imagined when he was at the pinnacle of power by the side of the leader of the free world….
As the furor over Watergate grew, he visited a friend one night, a successful businessman who had converted to Christianity. The friend read a passage from C. S. Lewis: “Pride always means enmity — it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.” Later, Colson sat in his car outside the house weeping alone in the darkness, not tears of sadness nor of joy, but “of relief.”
When he realized that the exigencies of his legal defense were inconsistent with the forthrightness entailed by his new faith, he pleaded guilty and became Prisoner 23226 at Maxwell Federal Prison Camp in Alabama, stripped of “power, prestige, freedom, even my identity.” Critics doubted and mocked Colson’s conversion. His Nixon administration adversary, former Attorney General John Mitchell, jibed that if Colson were a Christian, “I’ll take my chances with the lions.”
Colson was forced, as he told James Rosen of Fox News a few years ago, to see “the world through the eyes of people who were disadvantaged and marginalized and rejected, the outcasts in society, the untouchables in American life.” Although in prison less than a year, he never quite left. He started his group, Prison Fellowship, which is now active in most American prisons, conducting Bible-study groups, sponsoring pen pals, and providing gifts to the children of inmates…
What seemed to be Chuck Colson’s fall from grace in the mid-1970s was really the opposite. It was the first step on an ascension to true courage and service. His life is a testament to how redemption, so often debased and abused in a 24/7 news cycle obsessed with celebrity and scandal, can be astonishingly powerful and real.
Many media can’t grasp that. Or won’t. Especially in an election year in which the Christian witness in the public square, and the constitutional right to hold it, figures so prominently.
May he, finally, rest in peace.