Donald P. Shoemaker: Watergate’s Charles Colson transformed lives and ideas
(Op-ed in the Los Angeles Daily News & the Long Beach Press-Telegram, April 25, 2012)
“If this is to be a government of laws and not of men then those men entrusted with enforcing the laws must be held to account for the natural consequences of their own actions. Not only is it morally right that I plead to this charge but I fervently hope that this case will serve to prevent similar abuses in the future.”
So said soon-to-be prisoner 23227, aka Charles W. Colson, at Alabama’s Maxwell Correctional Facility in 1974. Special counsel to the president and hatchet man for the Nixon administration, he loved to hear Mr. Nixon say, “Chuck can get it done.” Time Magazine reported in 1974 that “Of all the assorted characters in the sordid Watergate cast, Charles Colson was widely viewed in Washington as the wiliest, the slickest operator.”
Between his departure from the White House and his guilty plea for obstruction of justice, Mr. Colson experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity. Sparked by his friend, Raytheon President Tom Phillips, and C.S. Lewis’ book “Mere Christianity,” Colson turned the page in his collapsing life on Aug. 12, 1973, as he sat in his car that night and, by his own account, cried like a baby.
Colson emerged from prison determined to speak out for prison reform and oppose the incarceration of nonviolent offenders who instead should re-enter society productively and pay restitution for their wrong. He established Prison Fellowship, now a worldwide ministry to prisoners.
Each Christmas season, Prison Fellowship’s “Project Angel Tree” provides gifts to children of prisoners. He ministered in prisons every Easter Sunday for the 34 years before his sudden illness this Easter season that led to his death on April 21. Colson would lead this ministry for almost 40 years and spin off other projects such as, in 2009, The Colson Center for researching and promoting a Christian worldview.
Colson was often identified with the religious right and has been described as its last prominent spokesman. True, he did embrace many of the religious right’s agenda items, but he also stood apart in significant ways.
One was his refusal to embrace the call to elect “godly Christian leaders.”
He knew the proclivity to both good and evil in politics. Sometimes we must vote for the lesser of two evils.
He warned, “We made a big mistake in the ’80s by politicizing the Gospel. We ought to be engaged in politics, we ought to be good citizens, we ought to care about justice. But we have to be careful not to get into partisan alignment.”
In 2011 he declared that the war in Afghanistan had long ceased to be a “just war” by the classical definitions. He reasoned that “nation-building” failed the “just cause” test and the conflict did not have the reasonable likelihood of success.
On illegal immigration, he upheld the rule of law against both those in the country illegally and those who employed them. But he also laid down the challenge: “Christians must work to see that the immigration debate generates light instead of heat. We must insist that the illegal-immigration issue be addressed without treating millions of Americans, many of whom have died protecting our country, as a kind of fifth column. That is the very least we can do if we are obedient to God’s command to welcome strangers.”
Colson possessed a brilliant legal mind and spoke accordingly. Evangelical Christianity benefited greatly from this outsider who challenged our patterns. His perceptive, nuanced weighing of the issues should make us all more reflective. He mentored a generation of Christian leaders and workers and, in the opinion of this writer, was their best contemporary model for thoughtfulness and good deeds.
Donald P. Shoemaker is pastor emeritus of Grace Community Church of Seal Beach.