Charles (Chuck) Colson got religion, but those people who haven’t got it, do not get it. They keep missing the point of his imprisonment as they retell his story. Sometimes they even get the chronology wrong – and in this case the chronology is important.
Chuck wasn’t converted in gaol, but beforehand. In fact he was gaoled because he was converted. Not that he was a martyr; persecuted and imprisoned for his faith. He went to gaol as a criminal because he had ‘got religion’. If he had not got religion he most likely would never have gone to gaol.
The Charles Colson story is one worth telling. He was one of the most corrupt politicians of his time who became a leader of the Christian cause in America, in particular, founding and leading the Prison Fellowship. A man who was sentenced to three years gaol for obstructing justice who thirty years later was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal. It is the second highest civic award given to an American who has “performed exemplary deeds or services for his or her country or fellow citizens". He fell from being a chief aid to the President into national public disgrace, and yet went on to be awarded the prestigious Templeton award for Progress in Religion, and no fewer than fifteen honorary doctorates.
Back in the 1970’s Charles Colson, who died last weekend aged 80, was in the centre of the scandals that swirled around President Richard Nixon. He was one of the chief dirty tricksters of one of the dirtiest and trickiest administrations in the history of the White House. The Wall Street Journal of 1971 ran the headline “Nixon Hatchet Man call it what you will, Chuck Colson handles the President’s dirty work”. In 1974 he was indicted on two charges concerning the Watergate break-in and the burglary of Dr Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
These charges were dropped, and there is serious doubt that he would have been found guilty on either of them. But Charles Colson pleaded guilty to obstructing justice. For, unknown to the prosecutors, Charles had revealed confidential FBI material to a journalist in order to bring Dr Ellsberg into ill repute and to make it impossible for Dr Ellsberg to receive a fair trial.
At the time when everybody else employed by the White House was trying to cover their tracks, he openly disclosed and confessed a crime of which he was not being accused. It was not a plea bargain to avoid punishment. He had been offered a bargain that he declined because he was sure he was legally innocent of those charges. He made his guilty plea without any deal or strings attached: even though it was not one of the issues, which the prosecutors were accusing him of; even though there was a technical problem over how his behaviour was criminal; even though he faced a possible five years prison sentence and being disbarred as a lawyer.
Why did he confess to a hidden crime? What was the motivation behind this sudden ‘mea culpa’? The reason for Charles Colson’s guilty plea is recorded in his books: Born Again (1976) and The Good Life (2005). He did it simply because of his conversion to Christ. He had become a Christian in 1973 and his discipleship to Christ would not allow him to keep concealed his crime.
In his book Born Again Charles Colson quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The first step which follows Christ’s call cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. The call to follow at once produces a new situation. To stay in the old situation makes discipleship impossible.”
Colson continued: “It had all looked so simple once, just getting in tune with God, finding out who Christ was and believing in Him. But whether I was ready for discipleship or not, here I was and there was no turning back” (p.234).
Those who do not get religion do not understand the motivation of a man like Chuck Colson. Conversion to atheism or agnosticism doesn’t lead to changes like this. Finding morality or doing an ethics course did not change him so dramatically . Rather it was in finding the forgiveness that Christ alone brings to his disciples. To those who have not found forgiveness in the death of Jesus on their behalf, it seems strange that forgiveness leads to moral change.
But forgiveness is not a recipe for moral irresponsibility, just the reverse it gives a whole new basis and motivation for moral responsibility.
Genuine discipleship involves changed life; changed in reality not just theory. Those who come to Christ will put their house in order. Like the tax collector Zacchaeus, who declared “the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8). It is not by restitution that we find forgiveness but because forgiveness has found us we make restitution.
This is the kind of change of which Jesus was speaking when he said “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Jesus was not talking of the good works that make people praise the disciple but the supernatural works that lead them to praise God.
Charles Colson did not go through some rehabilitation programme in prison to make him a better person. Nor did he pull his socks up with a New Year resolution. Nor did he seek some kind of redemption through public service. Charles Colson was met by the living Christ Jesus and could no longer live the way he had been. He had to change because he was changed.
When a man, so given to pride and deceit, becomes so humble and truthful that he confesses his crimes and lives the rest of his life in genuine public service, the credit is not due to him but to our Father in heaven.