Opinions columnist, 2007-2022

Charles W. Colson — who spent seven months in prison for Watergate-era offenses and became one of the most influential social reformers of the 20th century — was the most thoroughly converted person I’ve ever known.

Following Chuck’s recent death, the news media — with short attention spans but long memories — have focused on the Watergate portion of his career. They preserve the image of a public figure at the moment when the public glare was harshest — a picture taken when the flash bulbs popped in 1974.

But I first met Chuck more than a decade after he left the gates of Alabama’s Maxwell prison. I was a job-seeking college senior, in whom Chuck detected some well-hidden potential as a research assistant. In him, I found my greatest example of the transforming power of grace. I had read many of the Watergate books, in which Chuck appears as a character with few virtues apart from loyalty. I knew a different man. The surface was recognizable — the Marine’s intensity, the lawyer’s restless intellect. The essence, however, had changed. He was a patient and generous mentor. And he was consumed — utterly consumed — by his calling to serve prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.

Many wondered at Chuck’s sudden conversion to Christianity. He seemed to wonder at it himself. He spent each day that followed, for nearly 40 years, dazzled by his own implausible redemption. It is the reason he never hedged or hesitated in describing his relationship with Jesus Christ. Chuck was possessed, not by some cause, but by someone.

He stood in a long line of celebrated converts, beginning with the Apostle Paul on the Damascus road, and including figures such as John Newton, G.K. Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge. They were often received with skepticism, even contempt. Conversion is a form of confession — a public admission of sin, failure and weakness. It brings out the scoffers. This means little to the converted, who have experienced something more powerful than derision. In his poem, “The Convert,” Chesterton concludes: “And all these things are less than dust to me/ Because my name is Lazarus and I live.”

Prison often figures large in conversion stories. Pride is the enemy of grace, and prison is the enemy of pride. “How else but through a broken heart,” wrote Oscar Wilde after leaving Reading Gaol, “may Lord Christ enter in?” It is the central paradox of Christianity that fulfillment starts in emptiness, that streams emerge in the desert, that freedom can be found in a prison cell. Chuck’s swift journey from the White House to a penitentiary ended a life of accomplishment — only to begin a life of significance. The two are not always the same. The destruction of Chuck’s career freed up his skills for a calling he would not have chosen, providing fulfillment beyond his ambitions. I often heard him quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and mean it: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.”

Chuck was a powerful preacher, an influential cultural critic and a pioneer of the dialogue between evangelicals and Catholics. But he was always drawn back to the scene of his disgrace and his deliverance. The ministry he founded, Prison Fellowship, is the largest compassionate outreach to prisoners and their families in the world, with activities in more than 100 countries. It also plays a morally clarifying role. It is easier to serve the sympathetic. Prisoners call the bluff of our belief in human dignity. If everyone matters and counts, then criminals do as well. Chuck led a movement of volunteers attempting to love some of their least lovable neighbors. This inversion of social priorities — putting the last first — is the best evidence of a faith that is more than crutch, opiate or self-help program. It is the hallmark of authentic religion — and it is the vast, humane contribution of Chuck Colson.

It is a strange feeling to lose a mentor — a sensation of being old and small and exposed outside his shade. Chuck’s irrational confidence in my 21-year-old self felt a little like grace itself. The scale of his life — a broad arc from politics to prison to humanitarian achievement — is also the scale of his absence. But no one was better prepared for death. No one more confident in the resurrection — having experienced it once already. So my grief at Chuck’s passing comes tempered — because he was Lazarus, and he lives.