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The World's Great Prison Escapee

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
The power of redemption is the one concept a cynical, self-regarding epoch -- ours -- can't quite get its arms around, especially, perhaps, in the case of the late Chuck Colson. Can the guy have been right in the head? Wasn't he putting us on with all this Sweet Jesus business he performed in prisons all over the world?

If Colson was dissembling about his hard-won faith in Christ, the result of imprisonment for his part in Watergate -- a possibility I don't accept for a millisecond -- his was an odd way of staging a comeback: witnessing Christ's love to the ickiest congregation imaginable, prison inmates.

He got famous all right, but look at the millions of dollars he left on the table -- book royalties, prize money and the like. Virtually the whole of it he donated to the Prison Fellowship Ministries he founded in 1976. What sensible modern American would do such a thing? The Colson kind of American is just the kind to do such a thing. Because of ... because of ...

Redemption -- the concept we can't get our arms around. Colson could. He got it. Better said: He lived it. Prison and its attendant sufferings made a powerful mark on a man who once said he would walk over his grandmother to get Richard Nixon re-elected.

The much-despised Nixon is perhaps the distorting element in any consideration of Colson's extraordinary rebirth as servant of God. The fact was -- is -- that Colson, in prison, woke up to the painful understanding of an extraordinary reality in the lives of all men and women, Nixonites or not. What he saw with awful clarity was the fallen nature of us all: our capacity, irrespective of political orientation, to decide "right" and "wrong" for ourselves; to walk all over our grandmothers, unless constrained by the inhibitions proceeding from a more gracious place than our hearts.

Colson knew the source of that self-will to be the horrifying reality called sin. Ah. Sin. That's where we really trip up modern people. Does anyone believe that old stuff any more? Colson came to believe it, but in fact, you don't have to "believe" something rationally for it to circle you with open, carnivorous eyes, waiting to pounce. You can say, phooey, or in more modern parlance, "! $ %! %$"! Neither alters the consistent human experience of wayward behavior. "We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts," as the matchless Book of Common Prayer insists, matchlessly. "... And there is no health in us."

The possibility that Colson grasped and extolled is that of victory over our deeds and misdeeds through repentance and amendment of life. Forgiveness obtained through the mercy of Christ would blot out the obstruction of justice -- Colson's Watergate-connected offense -- not to mention sins far grosser.

The man who would have walked over his grandmother realized the narrowness of his escape. "I shudder to think of what I'd been if I'd not gone to prison," he said in 1993. He would have missed not just the experience of prison but the prison-induced necessity, as he saw it, of putting before -- even the worst of prisoners -- the possibility of salvation through the Son of God.

Yeah, yeah, sure, we know. Unicorns, pillars of fire, sons of God, curious figures closed to a world self-sealed from the intrusions of science and reason! Against Colson, much of the practical world of "diversity" and secularism closed intellectual ranks -- glad enough to acknowledge his good deeds, reluctant to attribute his source of inspiration to anything higher than the human desire for a good press.

The modern era's attempts to expel religion from public life, by prohibition or ridicule, seem to the modern era sheer necessity. Chuck Colson saw that necessity as folly. He plowed a straight furrow, caring nothing for scoffs and uncharitable views of his motives. He served neither the networks nor the pundits nor the wiseacres of either political party. Prison bars failed utterly to block the light that flooded the cell where God spoke and a humble, fallen man listened humbly.

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