Charles Colson died the other day at 80, a respected and even revered evangelist in the mold of Billy Graham.
By the time of his death, he may have been the country's leading prison reformer, too, working to change men rather than just punish them.
The worldwide mission he founded and directed -- Prison Fellowship -- continues to inspire.
He set out to make prisons penitentiaries in the true sense--a place for penitence. And rebirth.
That was Charles Colson.
There was also a Charles Colson in an earlier life. That Charles Colson had died and been born again circa 1974-76, when he would enter prison and leave it a new man.
Chuck Colson arrived at the minimum-security federal prison on the grounds of Maxwell Air Base in Montgomery, Ala., via the White House, where he had been not just a member but a leader of the Nixon administration and gang. He'd been convicted, as Richard Nixon should have been, of obstruction of justice.
No doubt about it, Chuck Colson could obstruct with the best of them, or rather the worst. That connoisseur-in-chief of dirty tricks, Richard Mountebank Nixon himself, gave him the highest recommendation in his presidential memoirs:
Mr. Colson, the former president wrote, was his "political point man" for "imaginative dirty tricks." Arriving at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue an ambitious young lawyer, he was determined to show that his tricks were the dirtiest of all, and he did not disappoint his boss.
Whether he was leaking confidential FBI files or compiling Mr. Nixon's infamous enemies' list, Chuck Colson soon became a favorite of that president's. "When I complained to Colson," Richard Nixon recalled, "something would be done. I was rarely disappointed."
In the best break of his life -- and the lives of so many whose lives he helped redeem -- Chuck Colson would be found out, indicted, convicted and sentenced to one-to-three for obstruction. It was while awaiting sentencing that a friend slipped him a copy of C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity," which he credited with opening his eyes. He would serve seven months of his sentence and leave proclaiming the Gospel.
When he announced the usual prison conversion, and his plans to start a prison ministry, the reaction among us usual skeptics, aka newspapermen, was that it was all a front, a way to get out of the joint and make a good thing of having gone bad.
But day by day and eventually year by year and decade after decade, Charles Colson proved us wrong.
The only force Colson's ministry employed was soul force, and it proved enough, more than enough. It seems the Spirit exercises a compulsion of its own.
Each of us may seek redemption in our own way. So does each national culture. Consider the life of John Profumo, namesake of the Profumo Affair in England. As secretary for war in a Conservative cabinet back in the early 1960s, John Profumo's name made the screaming headlines on the front page of every London tabloid morning after morning. For he had done the unthinkable for an English gentleman:
No, not engage in a torrid affair with a notorious prostitute who'd shared her favors with, among others, a naval attache/spy at the Soviet embassy. No, his offense was much more serious: He'd lied about it to Parliament.
Not done, you know. Bad form. Or at least it used to be when there was still an England.
John Profumo was forced to resign in disgrace. Disgraced most of all in his own eyes. He resolved to spend the rest of his life doing penance, helping the poor in anonymity. And he did.
John Profumo began his new and better life as a drudge, washing dishes and cleaning toilets, at Toynbee Hall in London's East End, a refuge for the down and out. He could identify. Eventually, he was persuaded to put down his mop and take charge of the place, but only reluctantly.
By the time he died not too long ago at 91, after devoting some 40 years of his life to good works on the quiet, John Profumo had been made a CBE, commander of the Order of the British Empire. He'd been forgiven by all except possibly himself. A gentleman after all, he'd found redemption the English way, by doing the honorable thing.
I used to think only the English knew how to do these things. Charles Colson proved that disgraced American politicians can find their way to redemption, too, just differently. Even in the eyes of those of us who raise an eyebrow whenever a politician is described as an evangelist, and whose first reaction is to think of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
Charles Colson did it his way, the American Way. He made Prison Fellowship a big business, raising funds, creating franchises, holding rallies, spreading the Word worldwide. Call it the late 20th-century, all-American version of the New Testament's great commission. Only behind bars, where Christians have landed before.
What the Christian brings to the world is a realistic response to man's real condition: fallen. Broken. In need of healing. Charles Colson was just responding to the brokenness of the world, beginning with his own. And he believed others would follow. They did.
You know, there may be something to this Christianity thing after all.
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