March 1, 1974. Washington Post photo by Arthur Ellis. Charles Colson, former special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, puts on his jacket to face photographers after being indicted for conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
After Chuck Colson passed away on Saturday, obituaries naturally remembered him first and foremost as the lawyer and Watergate conspirator who went to jail for obstructing justice. They also noted that, while in prison, he found Christ and dedicated himself to prison ministries. Alas, the mainstream media can be so dismissive of faith that many saw him only as a political warrior of the religious right, instead of a man who lived his faith and bridged the chasm between parties with his message of forgiveness and redemption.
When an ancient Greek hero suffered from hubris, he needed a fall to bring him low. And so it was with Colson. In the words of Psalm 119:71 (118:71 Septuagint), “It is good for me that Thou hast humbled me, that I might learn Thy statutes.” But unlike an ancient Greek hero, Colson did not wallow in self-pity or lash out in anger. He took his humbling to heart and embraced a new life of faith and service, founding Prison Fellowship Ministries to fix a broken system full of broken men.
In America, prisons started out as penitentiaries or reformatories, places where solitude, Scripture-reading, and labor were supposed to save men’s souls. But that plan didn’t work. Prisons quickly became dens of idleness, warehousing hundreds of thousands of (mostly) men who do little but watch TV and network with other wrongdoers. Reforming criminals is far harder and less certain than psychologists had imagined, so many of us all but given up hope for them, shutting them out of sight and out of mind in semi-permanent exile.
Colson took literally Christ’s command to visit and comfort those in prison, a ministry that middle-class congregations had previously ignored. He got prisons to set aside wings or buildings for inmates who wanted to live in a structured, faith-based environment. He got congregations to see it as part of their mission to partner with prisons and individual inmates, leading prison programming aimed at turning men’s lives around. Most of all, he got law-abiding citizens on the outside to encounter inmates, face to face, not as nameless, faceless threats but as their brothers to be redeemed. ”To everything there is a season . . . a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 5), a time to punish and a time to forgive.
And, in doing so, Colson changed the terms of debate. Government has had little money and little interest in providing for prisoners’ reentry into society. Programs like Prison Fellowship Ministries got members of congregations to help get inmates job skills, jobs, housing and social networks to help them reenter society after they have paid their debt to society. They also persuaded Congress to pass and President George W. Bush to sign the Second Chance Act, providing funding for these and other programs. And they have shone the spotlight on other barriers to reentry, such as permanent bans on letting felons live and work in any number of places and jobs, including many that have no public-safety aspect (such as hairdressers, plumbers, and undertakers).
Concern for prisoners used to be the exclusive province of the left and the whipping boy of the right. By the end of his life, Colson had laid the foundation for the left and religious right to come together to endorse restorative punishment followed by forgiveness. He brought Christian forgiveness and mercy into discussions of criminal justice, helping to break the ratchet that inexorably jacked up sentences and permanently exiled wrongdoers irrespective of need or public safety.
Chuck Colson lived his new-found faith and brought light to many thousands of others. We will miss his moral voice.
The writer, a professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of “The Machinery of Criminal Justice” (Oxford 2012).