Charles Colson passed away this last Saturday, April 21st. Remembrances and tributes are still being made, as is appropriate. He was a tremendous figure, and his work for the Lord, his impact on the church and how Christians should live and think, and his service to the least of these as well as his country cannot be measured and will not be replicated.
He had a special relationship with Union University, and he also had a particular impact on politics. Ultimately, he didn’t have this impact as he once would have envisioned. As an important aide to Richard Nixon, the pre-conversion Charles Colson must have thought he had “made it” and would be doing great things for his country.
But his real impact came in the decades of service, witness, and worldview thinking that followed his conversion. He did not see a disjunction between changing society through political means and changing society by changing hearts. Laws matter, and policies matter. Hence his involvement with Timothy George and Robert George to found the Manhattan Declaration and stand for life, marriage, and religious liberty. But he also worked tirelessly for “heart” change, but in the church and in one of the most neglected areas of our society, prisons. He was also instrumental in furthering genuine and robust conversation between Evangelicals and Catholics. The following are some reflections from Union’s political science professors when asked for their thoughts about his passing.
The first time I saw Chuck Colson walk across a room, I was deeply moved. His book Born Again made a powerful impression on me, both in terms of politics and faith. Colson had a reputation as Nixon’s axe man, the tough fixer willing to run over his own grandmother to help Nixon. His conversion is the closest modern day equivalent I can find to Paul’s dramatic transformation in Damascus. He continued to care about politics, but found a greater purpose than he’d ever had before which was to share the gospel with men in prison. God blessed his ministry. As his influence grew, he sought to influence our nation’s political life with a combination of love and truth. America was better because of Chuck Colson’s life and work.
I think of the power of God and redemption. Here is a man who served the god politics and lived by its mantra of “by all means necessary” which led him to his inevitable conviction after Watergate. But it was in prison that we saw Colson be humbled and turn to God and accept him as his Savior. Colson’s creation of Prison Fellowship and his ministering to convicts over the past thirty years proves the power of Christ and his ability to redeem humanity.
I remember being fed spiritually by Colson’s early books, Born Again and Loving God. And I remember being challenged to think “Christianly” by Colson’s later works in which he encouraged developing a Christian worldview. I met him once, at a planning meeting for what would become a movement to promote the federal marriage amendment. I remain struck by the lie he puts to the notion that Christians are necessarily mean-spirited or mushy-minded. It’s hard to convey this without appearing to put down other high-profile Christian leaders, but there was something different about Colson, something winsome yet without compromise. I am grateful for how God used him after God called Chuck to Himself, and I remain grateful now that God has called him home. Colson’s conversion came about in part through his reading of C.S. Lewis, who was once described as “the most thoroughly converted man I ever met” by someone who knew him. Surely we can say something similar about Colson. And may we live so that others will someday want to say the same about us.
(cross-posted at Union University).