Remembering Charles Colson

In this era, Charles Colson will be remembered as one of the most respected evangelical leaders in the United States. He was an influential layman, best-sell- ing author, broad-minded ecumenist, prison reformer, and presidential adviser. Like so many other believers, we were inspired by his conversion from the “hatchet man” for President Richard Nixon to the founder of Prison Fellowship. (Colson was incarcerated for Watergate-related charges and never forgot those behind prison walls.) He died Saturday, April 21, 2012, at age 80 from complications resulting from a brain hemorrhage. Throughout the tenure of our ministry here at Good News, we have always appreciated Chuck Colson’s winsome ministry of social justice, evangelism, and advocacy. One year after launching Prison Fellowship, he was keynote speaker at 1977 Good News Convocation. In a nod of gratitude, we wanted to reprint a few highlights from our interview that preceded that address and appeared in the January/February 1978 issue of Good News. — The Editor

Good News: At one time you were a nationally known and controversial political figure.

Charles Colson: Infamous.

There are many critics (perhaps even some of your friends) who construed your conversion as nothing more than a religious cop out amidst the pressures of Watergate. Now that some time has passed since your conversion experience, has that type of criticism pretty well run its course?

Yes. I used to find that a lot of people came to hear me speak purely out of curiosity. They were plain skeptical. They would come up after the speech and say, “We didn’t believe you, but now that we’ve heard you, we do.”

All I ever say to people is, “You know, I’m like the blind man who, when asked whether Christ was the Messiah, replied, ‘I don’t know who He was but now I can see.’”

I just tell my story, and if it provokes other people to think about their own lives, then I challenge them to try Christ for themselves.

How can ordinary Christian people get involved in prison reform?
The only prison reform that is ever going to mean anything is when the prisons become places of real revival. And only God is going to change these people. You can’t. I can’t.

We’ve had some success making little changes in a prison, but it is all — 100 percent — a matter of building relationships between people and Jesus Christ. I was in one prison where the men told me they had no pillowcases. I went out that night, talked to some Christian men in town. They bought pillowcases and shipped them into the prison. That went through the federal prison system like electricity! These are little things that happened because of what we are trying to do to open up the prisons to the Gospel.

There are 300,000 men and women in prisons and penitentiaries serving sentences [currently more than 2.3 mil- lion], not counting jails where they are awaiting trials. If committed Christian families on the outside would take an interest in helping these people, one-on-one, I think we could cut the crime rate by 50 percent.

The statistics show that four out of five crimes are committed by ex-convicts, so in some future year a statistician will tell you that 80 percent of all the crimes committed in the United States will be committed by the 300,000 people in prison today. Now, you change those people and it does you a whale of a lot more good than hiring policemen to fill the streets. That’s not where the answer is.

I don’t expect that in November 1972, when you were at the height of power in Washington, you would ever guess that four years later you’d be working in prison reform.
I didn’t see myself in 1972 as ever visiting a prison, let alone spending seven months there.

So what do you see yourself doing 15 years from now? Do you see prison reform as your lifelong work?
Scriptures tell us to look at one day at a time. And I made the mistake my first 40 years trying to plan it all out. I want to be open to whatever God’s leading is.

Do you find you are spending more time with ordinary people, or mostly with celebrities?
I spend a lot of time with convicts. I guess I call them ordinary people. Most people don’t. Most people think they have horns, don’t eat with a knife and fork, and chase their kids around.

Saturday night I had one of the most beautiful experiences that I have ever had. Eleven prisoners had graduated from two weeks of our discipleship training in Washington. I never had such a great night! I was never so excited. It was 10 times more gratifying than any White House dinner I ever attended.

Here I am witnessing to someone and think, he’ll never become a Christian. What counsel would you have to help us in witnessing to “hard cases” like you were before you met Christ?

The first counsel is, let the Lord do it. Don’t think you’re doing it!

The second counsel is harder.

I’ve sometimes found that a man who is fighting is really under conviction. There’s a very prominent man whose name I will not use. I think he was turned off by a lot of evangelicals who have tried to exploit him because he’s rich and famous. A year and a half ago he tried to hire me. He said, “You’ve got something I want.”

I said, “Well, I can tell you what it is and you can have it.” He said, “What’s that?”
And I said, “Jesus Christ.”

He slammed his hand down on the table and said, “Don’t ever talk to me about Christ.” He grew up in the Bible Belt and was really turned off and angry about it, furious. That was the end of it. But he came back wanting to hire me again. This went on over and over.

Once in a while when I would visit the city he lives in I would stay at his home, in a nice, big, comfortable guest house. I never pressured that man, but I noticed every time I was with him he would stare at me, trying to see if I was “for real.” One morning he woke me up at 5 a.m., and he had a Bible in his hand. He started asking questions and then accepted Christ. If I had to gauge the people who have reacted negatively to me, he was the most hostile.

Conversion — it’s God’s business, not ours.