Chuck Colson, the orthodoxy of Watergate and the mercy of God
“Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” — 2 Samuel 24:14
One of the most peaceful and joyous days of my life was spent in prison. This was back in 2006 and I was covering one of Chuck Colson’s visits to Texas. I heard Colson speak twice in a 12-hour period, once in a Houston church and the next day inside a Texas prison. The church was nice. The prison was glorious.
I’ll never forget Colson’s opening line to the inmates: “It’s great to be in prison,” he said. “I love to go to prison.”
Yes, it was a line, but he meant it, and the inmates knew it. This was a man in love with his place and his task. It was solid, at-peace-with-God joy that I saw on his face, more so than the evening before at church. And such is the power of the Lord, because the first time Colson went to prison, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, he was an inmate, not a guest speaker, and I doubt very much that he loved being there.
Colson passed away in April, ending a remarkable life spent first in defiance of, then in service to, Jesus Christ. I have struggled to write about it – how should we regard this man who arguably was the Paul of our lifetimes? How do you express admiration for a Christian so well used by God without deflecting the glory away from God?
I realized the answer is to focus on a single word: mercy.
Mercy is what Colson received from the Lord. Mercy is what he showed to others through his prison ministry. And, as demonstrated by reaction to his death, mercy is in obscenely short supply in the fallen world in which we live, though the self-righteousness in all of us would love to believe otherwise.
When Colson was converted to Christianity, he became a kind of celebrity for the “Born Again” buzz of the 1970s (his wonderful biography was even named, “Born Again”), which cultural observers viewed as a fad, but which Colson proved – because of how he lived the rest of his life — to be a spiritual imperative. There was nothing trendy about Colson, whether it was his button-down, square look or his unwavering dedication to “the least of these” – prison inmates. In a country pretty well convinced of its own goodness, no one cares much about prison inmates, but God cares, and he used Colson to bring inmates the Good News.
As a top aide to Pres. Richard Nixon, Colson reveled in the dirty business of gaining power and controlling the world, but God made Colson hunger instead for the glory of Christ and the redemption of the world. Here was a new creature in Christ Jesus. Born Again, not in fad, but in fact.
Colson preached to criminals through his prison ministry and he preached to our culture through his world-view ministry. For some, the dual focus may have appeared dichotomous, but Colson knew better. Criminals and culture, he seemed to understand, have so much in common – corrupted, lost, desperately needing the blood of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, but not believing in the need or the cure.
For years, I found Colson’s conversion to be compelling, his writing brilliant, his ministries inspiring. I thought him to be a Christian of great substance, and was glad I had the chance to meet him, talk with him some and see him at work.
So when Colson died and I began reading some of the coverage of his life, I became sad and angry. To read some papers, Colson’s life basically ended after Watergate and nothing else afterward mattered or was to be believed or valued. I saw lots of references to “Nixon’s hatchet man,” short, quasi-skeptical references to his rebirth and devoted Christian walk that followed, and almost nothing at all about the accomplishments of Prison Fellowship. Most writers simply missed the real story. Others attacked Colson openly.
What is going on here? I sense three things:
First, spiritual blindness: So many in the media missed the real story about Colson because they couldn’t see it. If the “real story” is Christ’s power to redeem (and that is the real story), you can’t expect editors, news producers, reporters and columnists to capture that, or even be interested in the angle, if they don’t personally know that redemptive power in their own lives. Since there is no difference between me and those journalists except for God’s mercy on me, I make this point humbly and with great hope for those in my profession who do not yet know Christ. It is not bad journalism, but spiritual blindness, that is the primary cause of the disappointing coverage.
Second, for most journalists, Watergate is the ultimate big story, not just because it cost a president his job, but also because it represented a high-water mark for the power of the press and our belief in its ability to change things for the better. In many conversations over the years with other journalists, I have come to realize that Watergate is no longer a story, per se, but a religion of sorts. It has its own saints, its own devils. Watergate has its own orthodoxy that must never be challenged, and part of that orthodoxy is that Chuck Colson was a devil. Writers like Donald Kaul are, in a sense, defending the Watergate faith. If Colson is not reliably and forever evil, the Watergate morality play somehow loses some of its power and mystique, and they can’t have that.
Lastly, however, we see in the coverage of Chuck Colson’s death the basic inability of humanity to forgive. It is not in our nature, short of the power of God. We are not naturally merciful, we are self-righteous and vengeful. When left to our own instincts, we are always on the lookout for prey. King David knew this and expressed it perfectly in 2 Samuel 24 when he sought to be punished by God rather than men. David knew that with God, you may find mercy, but that men are merciless.
How different this is than the perception so many people have of God. How many times have we heard people condemn God and rob him of his holy right to judge: “No God I would worship would ever send someone to hell,” etc. But it is God who is merciful. He knows the full depth of our depravity and yet provides for our salvation. We know little or nothing about other people yet condemn them in the strongest terms. In Christ, we are forgiven and our sins are not held against us. People relish dredging up the past and throwing your sins in your face, over and over again. Jesus made this plain in his parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18. Donald Kaul’s column is just one example.
When I heard Colson speak in that Texas prison years ago, I was feeling condemnation. I was thinking about some of the stupid things I had done in my youth, and the many sins I have committed every day of my life. I was not feeling too different from the inmates I was sitting with. I was guilty. Yet, as I stated at the outset, I felt joy and peace. Chuck Colson was telling the prisoners about freedom in Christ. I knew that freedom and so did many of the prisoners around me. We were all guilty and the reality of our guilt before God magnified our joy over the forgiveness of God.
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners —of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” – 1 Timothy 1:15-16
Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, indeed.