On July 9, 1974, Charles W. "Chuck" Colson spent his first night in a federal prison. He had worked hard to get there. He was known as Nixon's "Hatchet Man." He later confessed that he was "ruthless in getting things done" for Nixon, which eventually led to his conviction for obstruction of justice after the Watergate break-in. He also leaked confidential FBI files on anti-war activist Daniel Ellsberg (of the Pentagon Papers fame).
Before he went to prison to serve a 7-month sentence, he "got religion." He became a born-again Christian and was going to Bible studies before he even went to prison. While many in the media were skeptical and even mocked his "before jailhouse" conversion, I realized at the time that Colson was a man to keep my eye on because wicked criminals who belong behind bars usually wait until they are deep within the confines of the prison walls before they turn to Jesus.
Chuck Colson had what most people would consider a charmed life. He attended Brown University and George Washington University Law School. He was a captain in the U.S. Marines. He built a lucrative inside-the-beltway law firm.
While in prison, he promised fellow inmates that he would not forget them and he spent the rest of his life keeping that promise, working tirelessly to improve prison conditions and reform penal codes. In 1976, he founded Prison Fellowship, an international evangelical Christian ministry dedicated to bringing the good news to prisoners as well as working for prison reform and the reform of prisoners.
Colson, who died this past Saturday at age 80, steadfastly practiced what he preached about prisons, prisoners and penal reform. Where criminal justice was concerned, he was the "real deal." In an age of hypocritical ministers who don't practice what they have preach, Chuck Colson spent the next forty years of his life working endless hours to enlist 10,000 volunteers to work in 1,329 prisons across America, as well as organizing 15,000 volunteers each year to purchase Christmas gifts for more than 350,000 children of prisoners.
He created the InnerChange Freedom Initiative prisoner re-entry programs and found jobs for about 60% of all IFI parolees. He nearly single-handedly put America on a path to zero prison growth. He led the charge against states' mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. He helped ex-prisoners find jobs, get drug treatment and reconnect with their loved ones.
As one writer has stated, Colson was "God's good man, not Nixon's bad man. He gave his ministry most of his adult life and almost all of his money, including royalties on about two dozen books, speakers' fees, and the $1 million Templeton Prize for spiritual endeavors that he won in 1993. While maintaining his Break Point radio show, he worked endless hours raising the tens of millions of dollars a year that supported the ministry's operations.
For a couple of years I went to the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord every month to conduct Bible studies and meet with prisoners as part of Prison Fellowship. I saw firsthand the love and concern that these volunteers have for men and women who are incarcerated. I prayed with prisoners who were serving life sentences with no hope for parole but they had hope because of a new found relationship with Christ. They would tell me in almost the same words as Chuck Colson, that they were thankful to be in prison because that was what God had to do to bring them to himself.
As would be expected, Colson's passing has brought a stream of snarky, vile, vindictive pieces suggesting that Colson's religion and ministry were nothing more than a cover-up for who he really was--a dirty trickster and his critics (judge and jury) still contend that even in ministering to prisoners, Chuck Colson was a trickster to the very end. How sad. The fact is that Colson, Nixon's "Hatchet Man" buried the hatchet long ago and realized his need for a savior who would forgive and cleanse him of his sins. Would that his enemies and the enemies of the Cross would do the same.
I echo Russell T. Moore's (Dean of the Southenn Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY) parting thoughts in his eulogy to Chuck Colson in Christianity Today:
I have to believe that when Chuck Colson opened his eyes in the moments after death that he didn't hear anything about break-ins or dirty tricks or guilty consciences. I have to believe Mr. Colson heard a Galilean voice saying, "I was in prison and you visited me" (Matt. 25:36). I have to believe that he stood before his Creator with a new record, a new life transcript, one that belonged not to himself but to a Judean day-laborer who is now the ruler of the cosmos. And in that Lamb's Book of Life there are no eighteen minute gaps.
That's good news for guilty consciences, good news for recovering hatchet men and women like us.