As special counsel to President Nixon, Charles Colson became one of the most reviled political figures of the 20th century for his role in the Watergate scandal.
But what made Colson equally, if not more, famous was how he found the saving grace of Jesus Christ, and touched the lives of countless inmates through his successful prison ministry.
Colson, who died Saturday at age 80, was a master architect of his own redemption.
His obstruction of justice placed him hip-deep in the 1970s Watergate affair. This is the attorney referred to as Nixon’s “hatchet man.” This is the man whom gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson said should be tied “behind an Olds 88 and dragged down Pennsylvania Avenue.” Colson even described himself as “ruthless.”
But people who choose to remember Colson only in these ways are missing, truly, one of the most profound examples in modern times of rebuilding a life and a legacy.
Colson served seven months in prison for his crimes, but that short time behind bars was transformative. While jailed, he witnessed injustices toward his fellow prisoners and lackluster attempts at rehabilitation. After his release, he founded the Prison Fellowship outreach ministry in 1976. It went international in 1979, and now has offices in 112 countries.
A staunch opponent of the warehousing approach to incarceration, Colson worked tirelessly for prison reform, and for inmates to find faith and, from there, hope. One study of his methods, conducted several years ago in a wing of a Texas state prison, found that recidivism fell by two-thirds among inmates who participated in Colson’s program.
He won the Others Award, the highest civic honor bestowed by the Salvation Army. He won the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which comes with a $1 million cash award. He took that money and used it the same way he used all his book royalties and speaking fees – he gave it back to further the work of Prison Fellowship.
Colson’s post-Watergate career is no cynical dodge of his ignominious role in the downfall of the Nixon presidency. He never ran from that reality. But he used that adversity to forge a better life – not just for himself, but for untold others around the world.
Colson helped show the incarcerated that prison, while a low point, also can be a launching pad. The right attitude and outlook can propel inmates to a better life. We pray that someday all prisoners can benefit from his example.
Every inmate, former inmate and family Colson worked with he referred to as “living monuments” to God’s grace.
Colson makes a striking monument himself.