Chuck Colson (1931-2012) - A picture of redemption

Charles Colson, the self-confessed ‘hatchet man’ for President Richard Nixon, died this week. If ever there was someone whose life typified the ‘condemned’ to ‘set free’ message of the gospel, it was he.

Christians know this of themselves anyway, but Colson’s conversion showed the world just what the Lord can do when a person completely surrenders.

To think that someone so intimately involved in the Watergate scandal could end his life as a respected elder statesman. That was Colson.

Chuck Colson lived an amazing life. He died this week aged 80. Half of his life was spent striving for everything this world has to offer. The other half, for the Lord.

The Washington Post this week paid tribute to Colson. That alone says volumes. Baby boomers will recall the vigour with which the Post went after Nixon and his aides during the Watergate scandal.

WASHINGTON — Charles W. Colson, the Watergate felon who became an evangelical icon and born-again advocate for prisoners, died Saturday (April 21) after a brief illness. He was 80.

Despite an early reputation as a cutthroat “hatchet man” for President Richard M. Nixon, Colson later built a legacy of repentance, based on his work with Prison Fellowship, a ministry he designed to bring Bible study and a Christian message to prison inmates and their families.

And the op. ed. Piece by Michael Gerson was positively glowing:

Charles W. Colson — who spent seven months in prison for Watergate-era offenses and became one of the most influential social reformers of the 20th century — was the most thoroughly converted person I’ve ever known.

Colson’s famous line about walking over his own grandmother was gleefully picked up by satirists when he announced his conversion. Art Buchwald’s column is best remembered, although he remembers the line as “running over” Granny:

Did President Nixon know you ran over me to get him re-elected?
No, he didn’t, Granny. I never told him and he never asked me.
Why not?
I thought it best that he no know. Running over a person, even if it’s your own grandmother, is considered a crime, and had the President known, he would have had to lower the boom on somebody.

And so it goes, in parody of the entire Watergate scandal.

Colson did not actually have much to do with the break in at the Watergate Hotel, however, Nixon called on his ‘dirty tricks artist’ to disseminate derogatory information about former Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg who was suspected of leaking the Pentagon papers to the New York times, which exposed the truth about the US Government’s actions in the Vietnam War.

For his crimes (specifically “Obstruction of Justice”), Colson served seven months in prison. That may have been all Colson is ever remembered for if he had not undergone a profound spiritual conversion in August 1973.

That transformation was what led Colson to plead guilty to the charges in the first place, against the wishes of his defence counsel. He described it as “a price I had to pay to complete the shedding of my old life and to be free to live the new.”

And, roughly halfway through his time on earth, Chuck Colson took the opportunity the Lord had given him and completely transformed his public image. People do not often allow public figures to become something new. It takes a long, long time. But Colson did it and is in rare company as a result.

Not only did Colson form the world’s biggest prison ministry (1300 prisons and 150,000 prisoners) but he became an evangelical spokesman on a range of social issues.

In 2009 he was largely responsible for the Manhatten Declaration, which stated the evangelical Church’s opposition to abortion, same sex marriage and euthanasia. He called the document, “one of the most important documents produced by the American church, at least in my lifetime.”

His public profile also saw him walk a thin line between orthodoxy and liberalism. When he signed the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” ecumenical document in 1994, there was an enormous outcry. Whilst the document attempted to make evangelism its key theme, many Christians felt all it achieved was the removal of Roman Catholics as targets for evangelism and recast them as co-workers.

But at the end of his life, Colson had gained a reputation as an honest man who sought to make the world a better place through social action. He did about as well as you could expect anyone to do under the circumstances.

Name one other person involved in Watergate who today has an honourable reputation!

His 1976 autobiography, Born Again, became a best seller and was made into a movie.

In 1993, Colson won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion which carries $1 million in prize money. (It was a great relief to hear he had donated the money to his ministry & not to himself!)

As the obituaries are written this week, there will be divided opinions. Not because people are still suspicious about Colson. Everybody agrees the man repented and tried to make amends. The division will simply be based on what audience is reading.

Non-Christians may know something of Colson’s prison reform movement, but mostly they will just remember Watergate and perhaps recall Colson as the only one who put up his hand to admit his crimes. For that he might get a nod of approval.

Christians, on the other hand, remember Colson as a hero of the faith. It is a terrific thing that there are two Colsons being remembered this week because, form the title of his autobiography, that only proves that he was ‘Born Again’.

There was the old man Colson and there was the new man Colson and the new man entered the physical presence of his Lord and Saviour this week.

It always inspiring to hear of people who completely turned their life around (although we know who really did the turning) and Colson’s story will be told for generations to come.

I think the sentiment was best summed up by one columnist I read who concluded, "If there were an evangelical Mt. Rushmore, Chuck would be on it."