When Charles Colson died in April, age 80, it was the first time in 34 years that he did not spend Easter Sunday preaching to prisoners.
I’ve not had time yet to reflect on the life of this outstanding American who endured the infamy of Watergate, serving time in prison because of his role as chief hatchet man in the Richard Nixon administration. But everything changed then for Colson, as often happens to people who are faced with shocking reversals in life.
Colson, who described his conversion in his best-selling book “Born Again,” was on a new road. Former enemies were suspicious, but it was a genuine conversion.
Having served prison time, this former Marine and lawyer founded Prison Fellowship, lobbied for restorative justice and established thousands of local chapters to work in more than 1,300 prisons across the nation. I know of few public persons who have been more deeply changed than this man.
Contrast the late Mr. Colson with former senator and presidential aspirant John Edwards, on trial for misuse of campaign funds to hide his mistress and illegitimate child from his wife. Edwards’ main defense is that what he did was sinful, but not illegal. Perhaps Edwards, who has suffered much, will finally fall under the judgment of God and become a force for good in our society, too.
Once Colson grasped the profundity of God’s love and forgiveness, he was changed forever. He wrote more than 30 books, won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1993, donated the $1 million to Prison Fellowship and was in the forefront of compassion for those in prison and those who have been released.
I did not agree with all of Colson’s social positions, but he was a formidable advocate for prisoners and prison reform, and in that arena brought liberals and conservatives together for causes that were beneficial to prisoners, their families and society.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any nation on earth. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we have almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. One in every 100 U.S. adults is in prison.
No matter how one views these statistics — and there are multiple interpretations — the inescapable truth is that we need to do everything we can to make prison a place where redemption is possible and restoration is hopeful. Long-term work is needed for prisoners after release, too. Laws need to be less punitive in some cases. Charles Colson understood these things and devoted himself to making them happen.
The proof of a changed life comes with a steady walk in a new direction over a long period of time. Colson demonstrated that and more. While the rest of us were eating chocolate eggs and wearing our Easter finest, Colson was behind bars for 34 Easters, offering the same hope to others that he had miraculous received and accepted himself.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.