The Influence of Charles Colson

I have never met Charles Colson, and I shamefully admit I have not yet read any of his books. When I heard of his passing today, I was eating lunch in a busy, cacophonous restaurant with my parents, wife, and infant son. The email announcing Mr. Colson’s death, illuminated on my iPhone screen, broke the day’s pace. Its tempo slowed to a sluggish crawl and is yet to recover. My mind still struggles to grasp Mr. Colson’s absence.

I can’t recall feeling this sad at the passing of a man I have never met. But somehow, as I write ten hours after Mr. Colson’s passing, the world from which he departed feels a little emptier. It reminds me of being at a grand party with lots of others you don’t know. You’re all in the great room together, hobnobbing, learning about one another. The man who called the party, who brought together so many who otherwise never would have known each other, makes a few announcements. Then, without warning, he leaves. The gathering has lost the catalyst responsible for its making.

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Courtesy of Prison Fellowship

Such was Mr. Colson, calling together various strands of Christendom. From what I had read before his recent illness and immediately after his passing, it’s clear that once Mr. Colson embodied the conversion he professed before going to prison in the early ‘70s, people followed him. Once he began devoting his time and strength to reaching the drudges of society — convicted felons (like himself) — people rallied around him. His daily application of what he read in Scripture combined with a brilliant mind pioneered much of today’s evangelical and worldview movements. Thirty years after Watergate, he had again captured the mind of a president, this time to do works of virtue, not of vitriol. He was one of President George W. Bush’s most trusted advisors in matters of prison reform, the fight against AIDS, and human trafficking.

My first interactions with Mr. Colson’s work came only a year ago — how much I could have learned if I had paid attention earlier. It was then I began writing one-minute radio scripts for a program hosted by John Stonestreet: The Point. John, who’s also my current supervisor at Summit, is a protégé of Mr. Colson, working with him at Breakpoint, speaking alongside him, and co-hosting radio programs with him. Once I began writing some of John’s scripts (a couple of which Mr. Colson has mentioned on his Breakpoint program), I began learning more of Mr. Colson. Then I began listening to his daily programs. Since coming on at Summit, I have made sure to listen every day, growing accustomed to hearing Mr. Colson’s gruff, Boston voice as part of my morning routine.

Just a few weeks ago I accepted a freelance job that proved to be the most intellectually enlightening experience I’ve ever enjoyed on one assignment. I was asked to write a new and yet-unpublished curriculum for Mr. Colson’s video series on ethics, Doing the Right Thing. The project is a six-video series, offering roundtable discussions from some of the brightest ethical, judicial, and economic minds on the most challenging of today’s ethical quandaries. Having never seen the series until I got the assignment, I watched it several times before I began writing. With each video, I found myself thinking in whole new ways about each subject addressed: natural law, business ethics, the role of the academy, the true nature of education, knowing and doing right and wrong in a pluralistic republic, and justice. Working on that project has most assuredly changed my life and the depth at which I’ve begun to consider all these issues.  Engaging with the material was like hitching a ride on an intellectual submarine: it kept taking me deeper and deeper to finally discover the core of the issues plaguing so much of the West.

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Courtesy of Prison Fellowship

One of the things I’ve reflected on since Mr. Colson’s condition deteriorated is the fact that when he became ill, he wasn’t at home resting. He wasn’t on vacation. He was at the podium of his organization’s flagship conference, the Wilberforce Weekend. He was working, right to the very instant his body barred him from doing so. Mr. Colson was 80 years old, yet he maintained a schedule saturated with writing, recording, and speaking. Retirement wasn’t an option for him. Nor was Mr. Colson one of those who refuses to retire when everyone knows really ought to. In his final weeks he was as vehement and effective as ever in protesting an executive branch encroaching on religious liberty and trying to redirect a wayward culture. His final speech did both those things, curtailed as it was. Throughout the last 30 years, Mr. Colson also maintained a winsome, joyful, and gracious tone, even while refusing to relent when dismantling faulty ideas. Those who belittle him now as the same man who worked inside Nixon’s White House know nothing of him. Those who accuse him of hate heard nothing that he said, only what they wanted him to say to more effectively make him their enemy.

It’s for all these reasons the day has dragged since I learned of Mr. Colson’s death. It’s for these reasons my sense of loss is more akin to losing a trusted teacher than a total stranger. It’s for these reasons I feel a bit less connected to the network of Christians in this country. One of the most unifying voices of our day is gone. The one who gathered so many of us together in fellowship has left. But, as I’m sure Mr. Colson would remind us, the One in whose name we are gathered still unifies us.

Chuck Colson’s influence here on earth did not end the moment he looked upon the face of his Savior. He will continue to influence me, and I pray he continues to influence more of my and rising generations. Nevertheless, as we pray for Chuck Colson’s family, friends, and cobelligerents, we ought to pray for all of Christendom, which has lost a wise and inspiring leader.

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