By Alan Bean
I was gratified to see Michael Gerson’s tribute to Chuck Colson in the Washington Post. Most of the coverage of Colson’s death over the weekend focused on his responsibility for Nixon-era smear campaigns and dirty tricks. His work on behalf of prisoners and their families was mentioned in passing but received short shrift.
Gerson went to work for Colson as a young man and has always been fascinated by the intensity and thoroughness of his mentor’s conversion. Consider this lovely paragraph:
Prison often figures large in conversion stories. Pride is the enemy of grace, and prison is the enemy of pride. “How else but through a broken heart,” wrote Oscar Wilde after leaving Reading Gaol, “may Lord Christ enter in?” It is the central paradox of Christianity that fulfillment starts in emptiness, that streams emerge in the desert, that freedom can be found in a prison cell. Chuck’s swift journey from the White House to a penitentiary ended a life of accomplishment — only to begin a life of significance. The two are not always the same. The destruction of Chuck’s career freed up his skills for a calling he would not have chosen, providing fulfillment beyond his ambitions. I often heard him quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and mean it: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.”
I read Colson’s “Born Again” during my first year of seminary and came away impressed. For all his compassion, he never strayed far from the core convictions of the Republican Party and, for the cause of criminal justice reform, that was a blessing. Richard Nixon’s self-described “hatchet man” had instant credibility in conservative circles. They might not be able to listen to the ACLU or the Legal Defense Fund, but they were open to Colson.
How much impact did Colson’s opposition to mass incarceration and the death penalty really have? For thirty years he was a voice crying in the wilderness as bipartisan support for punitive policies controlled the national agenda. His message has registered more effectively in the past two years than at any earlier period of his career. His Prison Fellowship has been instrumental in drafting the “Smart on Crime” movement that has enjoyed considerable success in conservative circles.
Gerson’s column is highly recommended.