KINGDOMS IN CONFLICT An Insider's Challenging View of Politics, Power, and the Pulpit By Charles Colson Morrow/Zondervan. 399 pp. $15.95.
Few ex-cons have gone straighter -- straight to the microphones. In 1974, Charles Colson did time in an Alabama prison for his Watergate crime. The year before, he announced to the nation that he had turned from his wicked ways in servitude to Richard Nixon and had been born again to the service of the Lord. "I felt God's hand on my shoulder," he reported. God spoke, too: "Tell the story of one life -- yours."
Colson did. In 1976, "Born Again: What Really Happened to the White House Hatchet Man" resulted. Apparently Colson's shoulder has been touched again.
Colson reports that it was on a flight from New Delhi to Bombay in 1985 that he wrote a note to himself about the conflict between religion and politics: "The kingdoms are in conflict, both vying for ultimate allegiance. Not just in America, but around the world. By his nature, man is irresistibly religious -- and he is political. Unless the two can coexist, mankind will continue in turmoil. Tragically, we have lost sight of both the nature of man and the nature of God and His rule over the world."
Colson crams together these platitudes like a warden overcrowding a cell block. He hasn't written a book as much as repackaged a few pet mullings, most of which are unstirringly conventional. "The Soviet system is committed to the eradication of any vital practice of religion," he writes. If that's true, why are Westerners regularly taken to monasteries and churches when they visit the Soviet Union, and why has Mother Teresa been invited to open a convent in Moscow?
A pattern of similar confusion is seen in Colson's thinking. The ex-Marine has yet to break free of the right wing's most cherished theological dogma, that America's wars are God's wars. The Sermon on the Mount is fine, Colson writes, but "God has provided structures to restrain the evil of this world. The state is even ordained to wield the sword when necessary; and the Christian is commanded to obey the state and to respect its authority as God's instrument ... He may participate in the God-ordained structure that restrains the evil and chaos of the fallen world by the use of force."
Extending the gospel of Colson means that the thinking of Gandhi, King, Thoreau, Day, Tolstoy, Merton, Muste, St. Francis and others of proven spirituality was wrongheaded in its defiance of the state's militarism. Extending Colson's theology means that America's seven declared wars and 135 undeclared ones are the handiwork of the Lord.
As a social commentator, Colson isn't the insider he claims to be. He's an outsider, content to offer such flipnesses as:
"Man's basest passions have unleashed a plague called AIDS, which now holds millions hostage."
On the Live Aid concert: "Let's not kid ourselves. Just because the fans in London or Philadelphia go home satisfied does not mean that the hungry in Africa go home fed."
"Trotsky, Tito, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro -- and the Sandinistas of the '80s -- all the tyrants who have followed Marx have believed substantially the same thing about Christianity."
Such barking in front of Colson's revival tent obscures the singular value of his work these past 11 years with Prison Fellowship Ministries. He has been tireless, wise and humane in caring for prisoners. He has been to some of the world's meanest hellholes, including ones in Ulster. In one prison, Colson visited "the hole." "When the guards grudgingly swung open the heavy steel gate of B tier of segregation, I immediately stepped back. A foul mist hung in the air, giving an eerie glow to the dim overhead lights. Piles of rotting food and human excrement littered the floor. I had to force myself to move forward."
That particular prison was the "Concrete Mama," the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, Wash. Colson saves that and other prison stories for the end. It's biblical and all that to be humble, but here is Colson with a rebirth that matters, one that goes beyond the babbling Jesus-talk and brings hope to people who need it. At Walla Walla, he was able to publicize the violence inflicted on the inmates and bring about some reforms. "It is still a prison filled with the angry, desperate, broken lives of those who seem unable to live in society," he writes. "But it has changed ... because of God's power, not ours ..."
Colson's faith is impressive, but only when it's put to work in efforts that few others care about -- prisons. Spouting right-wing and neo-con superficialities, as he does throughout most of these pages, detracts from the true beauty of his rebirth.
The reviewer is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.