Chuck Colson, the scheming Watergate “hatchet man” who found Jesus in prison and went on to become a beloved evangelical spokesman, passed away this weekend. While surprise comebacks aren’t unheard of in the worlds of politics and religion, rarely has redemption so dramatically turned a public life around, lifting Colson from the depths of America’s most infamous political scandal into a life of eloquent, outspoken faith.
Much is being written about Colson and his legacy. For many, his radio show, cultural and political views, or multitude of books define him—and to be sure, they make for a wide-ranging and influential legacy. But Colson’s vision for the “least of these”—in his case, prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families—stands out as his most important life work. After his own experience in prison, Colson founded Prison Fellowship, a ministry that reaches out to support those languishing in prison.
It’s hard to imagine a group of people in modern America more scorned and ignored than its prison population. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are incarcerated (tens of thousands of them in solitary confinement)—each of them isolated from families and the stabilizing effects of church, home, and jobs. It’s common for politicians to run for office on platforms calling for harsher sentencing for criminals; it’s much rarer to hear public calls for mercy, reform, and rehabilitation. Jokes about prison rape are disturbingly common in our entertainment.
Yet it was to this unloved population that Colson felt called to minister. He understood that all men and women, convicted criminals or not, are made in God’s image and should be treated with respect and Christ-like love. It’s a ministry that all Christians are called to join. In Matthew 25:31-36, Jesus made it clear that ministry to prisoners, regardless of their guilt or legal status, was important:
[Jesus said,] “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry
and you gave Me something to eat;
I was thirsty
and you gave Me something to drink;
I was a stranger and you took Me in;
I was naked and you clothed Me;
I was sick and you took care of Me;
I was in prison and you visited Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or without clothes and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and visit You?’
“And the King will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’ Then He will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!
For I was hungry
and you gave Me nothing to eat;
I was thirsty
and you gave Me nothing to drink;
I was a stranger
and you didn’t take Me in;
I was naked
and you didn’t clothe Me,
sick and in prison
and you didn’t take care of Me.’
“Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or without clothes, or sick, or in prison, and not help You?’
“Then He will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me either.’
“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” — Matthew 25:31-46 (HCSB)
We can be thankful to Chuck Colson for so diligently taking up the charge to care for the imprisoned and their families. And we thank God for so powerfully working His redeeming grace in the heart of a disgraced sinner—and for using that man to make such an important difference in our world.