When Chuck Colson died three years ago today, there were a number of vindictive journalistic pieces slinking out against the founder of Prison Fellowship. It’s not that I minded these articles focusing on Colson’s Watergate crimes and his rather nasty political persona prior to conversion; Colson emphasized that too. More problematic was the smug undercurrent that somehow Colson’s life in ministry to criminals was somehow just some sort of “cover-up” for who he “really” was: a dirty trickster for whom everything was politics. Even as they buried the hatchet-man, some journalists just couldn’t bury the hatchet. And, as they centered everything on Watergate, they demonstrated that Nixon wasn’t the only one with an Enemies List.
I found myself reflecting on my own hypocrisy in my irritation with these cynical secular editorials and news pieces. After all, I’m the one who rolls my eyes at an evangelical victim mentality that cries “media bias” whenever we aren’t represented fairly. In my anger at these writings, I evidenced a spirit closer to Watergate-era Richard Nixon than to the post-Watergate Chuck Colson. Nixon’s downfall, after all, was at least partly due to his consuming desire to be accepted by the media and culture mavens of American society. President Nixon’s rage was because he really cared what the New York Times and the Washington Post wrote about him.
It’s just bad journalism to portray Chuck Colson as some sort of born-again Machiavelli of the Religious Right. After his conversion, Colson was discipled in the Christian faith by a progressive Republican (Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon) and a liberal Democrat (Sen. Harold Hughes of Iowa). Colson did engage political issues, but he consistently warned against the entanglements of evangelical Christianity with the Republican Party, recalling how he and the Nixon team had used some Christian leaders for their own purposes. And Colson clearly wasn’t some sort of activist, transferring his political ambitions from the West Wing to the sawdust trail. If he were to do that, he wouldn’t have chosen issues clearly outside the Religious Right playlist: prison reform, prison rape, injustice in application of the death penalty, and so on.
Still, we shouldn’t be angered by those who don’t get the full measure of the man. We should instead hear in some of this cynicism the cry of every human heart, a disbelief that there can be any such thing as final and total forgiveness of sin. There’s a reason, after all, why President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon prompted such initial outrage. It seemed that Nixon escaped justice. He wasn’t held accountable for what everyone knew to be evil: lying, conspiracy, obstruction of justice. For some, Colson’s transformation from disgraced hatchet-man to beloved religious statesman was from the same cloth.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, isn’t a Gerald Ford-like pardon. It doesn’t simply promise freedom from consequences. The gospel deals honestly and soberly with what the conscience knows to be true: human guilt. Colson understood this kind of tactic while in the Nixon White House. If you can find some “dirt” on an opponent, you can silence them. You can hurt George McGovern by planting his campaign materials in the home of George Wallace’s would-be assassin Arthur Bremer. You can compromise the “Pentagon Papers” by releasing the psychiatric records of their author. You can win against the Democrats if, by phone taps, you can prove they’re getting Cuban money. And so on.
These tactics weren’t pioneered by the Nixon White House, or by the Johnson machine before it. These tactics of accusation are as old as the human race; in fact, older. The satanic powers hold humanity in captivity, the Bible teaches, through accusation and fear of death (Heb. 2:15; Rev. 12:10). The gospel doesn’t just “pardon.” The gospel gets at the root of the accusation, and brings about justice by uniting the sinner to an arrested, indicted, and executed Humanity, in the cross of Jesus, and by uniting that sinner to a righteous, sinless, and vindicated Humanity, in the resurrected Christ. That’s why Colson didn’t hide in an apartment somewhere, but spoke so openly of his sin, and identified himself with broken men and women with guilty consciences and criminal records.
Colson had every reason to be ashamed. Virtually every word he spoke in the Nixon White House was recorded and transcribed, and laid open for everyone from the House Judiciary Committee to his next-door neighbors to see. His own words proved him to be ruthless, manipulative, and, at times, craven. But all of our words are transcribed, the Bible tells us. They are embedded in a conscience that points us toward a Judgment Day in which every idle word and thought is revealed, and all is laid bare (Rom. 2:15-16). Like Nixon and his cronies, we want to obstruct that justice. If only we could erase the “tapes,” and sear over our consciences, we reason, everything will be okay. In trying to win the campaign of our own attempts at self-justification, we’ve rebelled against a higher authority than the United States Constitution. We’ve broken into temples more sacred than the Watergate Hotel.
A generation ago, the southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd sang back to a culture basking in the glory of a repudiated and humiliated Nixon White House. They sang, “Now Watergate does not bother me; Does your conscience bother you? Tell the truth.” That’s still the question.
When you read those who smirk and dismiss the Chuck Colson conversion, the Chuck Colson life, don’t get angry and don’t be outraged. Read a subtext that belongs to all of us: the fear that the criminal conspiracy we’ve all been a part of will be exposed, and just can’t be forgiven. Read the undercurrent of those who find it hard to believe that one can be not just pardoned, but “born again.” That’s indeed hard to believe. An empty grave in Jerusalem is all we have on which to base that claim, a claim that speaks louder than our own accusing hearts.
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.
This article originally appeared April 23, 2012 at christianitytoday.com. You can read the original here.
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