Plumbline Author: Michael Gerson
Date: April 30, 2012
Topic: In Memoriam: Charles W. Colson, A Life Well-Lived (1931-2012)
The passing of a great Christian leader first brings sadness and then reflection. It causes us to examine what real influence means.
Charles W. Colson was a towering figure in American evangelicalism. His life followed the arc of a great story: from White House official, to disgraced prisoner, to founder of a prison ministry, to four decades of principled, honorable Christian leadership. This was a life obviously being used by God for great purposes.
I saw Chuck’s character close up. Chuck gave me my first job, as a research assistant working at Prison Fellowship. He also gave me a lifelong example of leadership.
Following Chuck’s conversion, God took hold of a set of extraordinary skills. Christian belief did not make Chuck mild or retiring. He remained driven. He demanded much of those around him, but was quick to praise every success and achievement. He thought the standards and professionalism we bring to the Kingdom of God should be at least as high as those he brought to the Marines or the White House. Faith was never an excuse for mediocrity.
Chuck was constantly energetic and upbeat. This was an inbuilt part of his personality, but it was based on a theological conviction. He believed that despair—even in the worst setbacks—reflected a lack of faith in God’s sovereignty.
Chuck was intellectually engaged every day of his life. His reading in philosophy, theology and history was broad. His conversation would range from Augustine to Wilberforce to John Paul II. This reflected an active lawyer’s mind. But it also reflected a belief that Christian faith shed light on every aspect of life and culture.
Yet Chuck’s greatest example to me was his conception of what true influence means. He spent the balance of his life serving prisoners—people who are generally reviled and ignored by the rest of society. They could feel the authenticity of his concern for their lives and souls.
Chuck did not set out to build a ministry. He set out to serve the feared and forgotten. He had once shared their condition, but he also believed that all human beings share a kind of imprisonment until they are freed by Christ. He knew that captivity could be found on both sides of the bar—and that freedom could as well.
This is the continuing importance of prison ministry and other forms of Christian ministry to the least and the lost, to the unwanted and vulnerable. This type of outreach gives credibility to the Christian gospel in a way no argument or institution ever could. It was Jesus’s priority on earth to associate with the outcast while teaching that we are all outcasts in the absence of grace. And this was same priority of Chuck Colson, the largest legacy of a life well lived.
—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics.