England's Colson

International | Tory dignitary Jonathan Aitken went to jail for perjury, but now he's going to prisons to preach

Issue: "Daniel of the year 2001," Dec. 22, 2001

in Newbury-Jonathan Aitken is no ordinary ex-politician. The former Minister for Defense and Chief Secretary to the Treasury saw his political career take a very public kamikaze-dive in the late 1990s, when the national press exposed him as a perjurer. He experienced what he describes as "a royal flush of public crises": divorce, bankruptcy, and jail. Once considered a favorite to step into John Major's prime ministerial shoes, he is now better known as the liar who encouraged his daughter to sign a false-witness statement to cover up his dubious behavior. His downfall came after The Guardian in 1995 accused him of knowing about illegal arms deals to Iraq and improper business relations with the Saudi royal family. He vowed to "cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism with the simple sword of truth," and sued the newspaper for libel-only to be jailed in 1999 for perjury and perverting the course of justice after he lied about a hotel bill paid by a businessman with close connections to the Saudi royal family. On his release, Mr. Aitken armed himself with another sword of truth-the Bible. He has spent the past year studying theology at Wycliffe College, Oxford, and preaching at American prisons this summer. He says his change of direction was inspired by support from Christians, including Charles Colson. "Gradually, they began to gather round me," he told WORLD. "I went on an Alpha course. (See sidebar.) I went to confession. I went deeper and deeper into prayer.... By the time I got to prison, I had a strong faith." The 59-year-old says his newfound belief was a factor in his pleading guilty to the perjury charge in January 1999, despite knowing he would certainly be sent to prison. "One of my legal team tried to press for a not-guilty plea, which might have conceivably been legally successful, but it would have been morally quite wrong-there is no doubt whatsoever that I told a lie under oath," he said. In prison, he befriended several inmates by helping them read and write letters to their friends and families, and he started prayer groups with pickpockets, drug users, and any other prisoners who were interested. "Many of them had a change of heart and life," said Mr. Aitken. "I saw people stop swearing and come off drugs, through the help of prayer." Mr. Aitken says he remains in touch with around 17 of his fellow prisoners, most of whom are still "going straight." He says his spiritual growth in prison encouraged him to go to theological college and preach in prisons with Mr. Colson, telling death row inmates in Mississippi that they, too, could receive forgiveness in Christ. "I actually don't have any feelings of guilt about what I have done," he said. "I have feelings of regret, of past shame, and that I did something wrong, but the whole point of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness is that once you have turned to Jesus Christ in penitence and faith and laid the burden of your sins at the foot of the cross, you are forgiven." He says he is aware that cynics will accuse him of taking the "soft option" by turning to Christianity, but he is more concerned about his relationship with God. "I am not always successful," he said, "but I try hard to live a God-centered life rather than a self-centered life, and that's a huge change for me." He says he does not want to return to the arena where he was so publicly exposed, but is content with studying, lay preaching, talking in prisons, and writing articles and a biography of his partner-after-crime, Mr. Colson. "I would be amazed if I was ever back in any type of political life again," he said. "I really went wrong because of the sin of pride, and in politics it is very easy to get puffed up with pride. My first prayer for politicians is that they would know the Lord, and would also be humble."

-Charis Mastris is a World Journalism Institute fellow

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