NINA SHEA Fifteen years ago, Chuck Colson stirred his large evangelical audiences to speak up against religious persecution abroad. Though his ministry was primarily devoted to helping prisoners of all kinds, he was active on many fronts within the movement backing the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Without his key efforts, the Act — which, among other things has created first-rate comprehensive annual reporting by the State Department on the status of religious freedom worldwide — may well have been as doomed as the foreign-policy establishment was then confidently predicting. I was deeply honored when, among his many efforts in this cause, Chuck wrote the foreword to my 1997 book on global anti-Christian persecution, In the Lion’s Den. In it, he rallied the churches to end their indifference and passivity:
Christian citizens need to do something when the U.S. government refuses to safeguard religious liberties around the world. It is time for Christians to use pulpits and publications to cry out in defense of fellow believers. It is time to write to representatives in Washington, D.C., demanding reforms in INS policy and calling for the protection of persecuted Christians as a top priority when the U.S. negotiates with other countries. We need to try to influence foreign-service policy to require any country receiving assistance from the United States to maintain basic standards of human rights and religious liberties.
Now, with as many as 40,000 Christians in North Korea’s gulag, all religions under tight surveillance and regulation in places such as China and Iran, and a new pattern of church bombings in Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, and other countries, his words are as salient now as then. The Chuck Colson I knew was generous, impassioned about religious freedom, compassionate for those who sought justice, and full of wise counsel. He will be deeply missed, not least by the world’s persecuted.
The last time I saw Chuck Colson in public was at a “Socrates in the City” Christmas gala in New York in 2010. He spoke about the connection between Biblical truth and the worldview such truth should bring to the Christian.
While a young reporter in Washington during the Watergate years, I was familiar with the media’s portrayal of Colson as a tough “hatchet man” who did the dirty work of President Richard Nixon. Like most of Washington, I was shocked and at first cynical about his professed conversion by Jesus Christ, but after meeting him it was clear the man was different from what he had been.
In personal conversations and later in correspondence when he was in prison for seven months, I became convinced that Colson was a “new creation,” as Scripture promises to the redeemed.
That the “natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit, because they are spiritually discerned” was evident throughout much of Colson’s post-Watergate life. But even hardened media critics came to grudgingly accept that Colson was for real because of his consistency and his work with Prison Fellowship, the ministry he founded and through which he promised not to forget inmates who were where he had been.
Still, the Washington Post in its obituary couldn’t resist finding a criminologist to express doubt about Prison Fellowship’s success record in turning the lives of inmates around and producing a recidivism rate in the single digits, far lower than the world’s attempts to reform prisoners: “‘There is a self-selection problem,’ said Allen Beck, a criminologist who has served as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice and several state prison systems. ‘The inmates who sign up for such programs tend to [be] people who are a relatively good risk in the first place. Trying to ascertain cause and effect is very difficult.’”
It would appear that Beck never entered a prison with Colson on an Easter Sunday, as I did, and spoke to even those on death row who said they had been redeemed. While it is true some prisoners “get religion” in hopes it will set them free, death-row inmates are not afforded that opportunity. I have met many former inmates who have gone through Prison Fellowship’s Bible study program. They exhibit a quality rarely seen in the secular prison system: a changed life.
It’s amazing how much faith the world places in what doesn’t work, especially politics. Charles Colson’s greatest contributions came not through the “kingdom of this world” and its phony promises to improve people’s lives; it came through and by a “kingdom not of this world,” which is why he found ultimate power, not in the White House, but in the “house” of the Lord he came to serve, a house in which he now resides.
Charles Colson has heard the only pronouncement on a life that matters. It hasn’t come from the Washington Post, but from Jesus of Nazareth: “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
— Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.