Charles Colson went on to found the world's biggest prison ministry
At Sunday Mass yesterday in our parish the recessional hymn was written by G K Chesterton. For those who don’t know it I will just quote the first verse as, written in GKC’s inimitable brand of bold rhetoric, it seems apposite to our current political situation:
O God of earth and altar
Bow down and hear our cry
Our earthly rulers falter
Our people drift and die
The walls of gold entomb us
The swords of scorn divide
Take not our thunder from us
But take away our pride.
You get his drift. One might comment that political rulers were ever thus. Yet Christians today are inclined more than ever to feel an isolated group within modern society. Some would say we are certainly suffering unfair discrimination while others, less sympathetic, think we are an aggrieved minority with a persecution mania.
The final line of the hymn put me in mind of Charles “Chuck” Colson who died last Saturday, aged 80. A close associate of the late president Richard Nixon and known as his “hatchet man”, he was brought down by the Watergate scandal of the mid-1970s. What interested me in reading his obituary was that he had become a born-again Christian in 1973 – the year before he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and served seven months in Maxwell Federal Prison Camp in Alabama.
It seems that during the Watergate crisis he had visited a friend, a successful businessman who had himself converted to Christianity. This friend prayed with Colson and read him a passage from C S Lewis: “Pride always means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.” Colson, who was to call his autobiography Born Again, later sat in his car weeping “tears of relief”. Having lost his integrity years before to Washington politics and specifically to Nixon’s campaign for re-election, he now surrendered himself to God.
Members of the metropolitariat are inclined to mock people who have a conversion experience. But Colson’s conversion was no transient emotional spasm. It changed his life. His period in prison indeed took away his pride. In 1976 he founded the Prison Fellowship Ministries, now the largest prison ministry in the world, running Bible-study groups, sponsoring pen-pals to inmates and providing gifts for their children. This was to influence Jonathan Aitken, another disgraced politician and Christian convert, who later wrote Colson’s biography.
Not unrelated to Colson’s political career, I have just come across an intriguing story about Nixon, reported by Timothy Stanley for CNN. He writes that in the early 1970s Nixon told his staff that he was tempted to convert to Catholicism but was worried it would be misinterpreted: “They would say there goes Tricky Dick Nixon trying to win the Catholic vote.” It seems Nixon admired the Church’s intellectual pedigree and her uncompromising defence of traditional values. History is full of “if onlys”.
As today is Shakespeare’s birthday I conclude with a quotation, referring to another disgraced politician, from the grand old man of poetry and politics: “Had I but serv’d my God with half the zeal I serv’d my king, he would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies.”