For the first time in 34 years, Chuck Colson won’t be in a prison for Easter. The famous Watergate figure and Christian convert usually spends the day ministering to prisoners, but is recovering from surgery to remove a blood clot on his brain.
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.
Colson was known, in the words of a Wall Street Journal headline that stuck with him, as Nixon’s “hatchet man.” He helped build the sinews of the Silent Majority with outreach to constituencies such as labor, and was an all-around fixer. Nixon loved his ruthlessness. Colson had every reason to feel proud of his status. He was in the swim of events, a big man, a tough guy, talked about, respected, and feared. But pride is the great villain in Colson’s classic autobiography, Born Again.
When he gave the valedictory at his high school in Cambridge, Mass., he emphasized pride. When he turned down a full scholarship to Harvard, he did it out of pride — to stick it to all the swells. In the Nixon White House, he served a man drunk on pride.
Colson left government after Nixon’s reelection, feeling exhausted and empty. 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.
A devotee of the great English reformer and abolitionist William Wilberforce, Colson is one of the nation’s foremost voices for checking the excesses of America’s prison-industrial complex. He long ago came full circle from the enforcer of a “law and order” administration to an advocate of mercy and restraint. He doesn’t mind telling uncomfortable truths. He stirred up some of his fellow evangelicals when, in the 1990s, he promoted reconciliation with Catholics. He maddens the Left with his unbending social conservatism.
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.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2012 by King Features Syndicate