Today’s Courier Herald Column:
“Dirty Tricks”. Even with the redemption story of Charles “Chuck” Colson, these words feature prominently in his Washington Post obituary. It serves as a not so subtle reminder that in politics, as in life, our past is always with us.
Colson’s political past was one of absolute allegiance to President Richard Nixon. That same Post obituary mentions that Colson was said to have been willing to “walk over my own grandmother” to win Nixon’s re-election. As an operative, he was a man who possessed political brilliance. He also possessed a willingness to blur legal and ethical lines to ensure his political goals were met. In doing so he won Nixon’s reelection. He also was a large part of why Nixon ultimately had to abdicate his Presidency.
Between Nixon’s reelection and resignation, Colson found religion as many people do. In his darkest personal and professional hour, he found the only light that mattered. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice “as I price I had to pay to complete the shedding of my old life and to be free to live the new.”
On Saturday April 21st, Charles W. Colson died a free man.
Legal freedom for Colson came in January 1974, just seven months after he entered a federal minimum security prison. Personal freedom came for Colson not only when he decided to follow Christ, but when he decided that his calling was no longer to serve the powerful govern the free, but to help those incarcerated with no power and no freedom.
As a people, it is easy for us to write off those members who have been culled from society and placed into prison for their legal transgressions. As politicians, it is almost mandatory to ensure that those behind bars not be coddled, but shown as examples to others what being “tough on crime” looks like. But as Christians who believe in the power of redemption, prisoners reflect those sinners who appear to need religious compassion most, yet are the least likely to find it.
Colson spent the rest of his life dedicated to a prison ministry for both prisoners and their families. This alone is significant on its face for the reasons mentioned above. Colson demonstrated love to the unlovable; compassion to those that society had declared unworthy of such a gift.
Equally remarkable, however, is that Colson chose to eschew politics for the remainder of his life. His personal redemption was not a path to regain the spot from where he fell from grace, but was instead to ensure a much better place for himself and for others in eternity.
We are all too familiar with politicians and political operatives who fail personally, morally, ethically, and legally. The story seems to repeat itself frequently. Most conduct a public mea culpa. Some conduct a public act of contrition. Many then begin a path to return to their former position of prominence.
Biblical instruction appears mixed on the subject. We are not to judge lest we shall be judged, yet we are instructed to know false prophets by their deeds. There are no clear instructions for politicians who show remorse only when caught who then return upon their chosen path.
Colson, however, chose a very different path. In it, he likely changed more lives in a direct and hands on manner than he ever would have sitting at the right hand of government power. He spent 7 months in actual prison. For many, living up to the expectations and requirements of a political career becomes an virtual prison. His true freedom came from his distance from his former profession.
Most politicians begin their career with the best of intentions. We know too well the path that these pave. Over time, compromises in the short term are justified as for the greater good. Compromises become routine. The greater good becomes less defined. The desire to make the world a better place is often replaced with the desire to win. Power for the sake of power becomes an intoxicating driver which obfuscates any vision of the original goals, the original good intent.
For many with a career in and around politics, the allure for more power and the maintenance of a false public image becomes a self imposed prison. Many in the business can identify with the old Chuck Colson. Many likely wish they could identify with the reformed Chuck Colson who was able to leave it all behind, and live a life with substance and without pretense.
Colson’s freedom was about much more than leaving a prison cell. As such, his prison ministry lives on for many more whose prisons have no bars or cells.