Some stories that reported the death of Charles Colson last week explained him as the hatchet man for President Richard Nixon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Colson wound up going to prison for Watergate-related crimes. Other stories noted him as a criminal justice reformer who befriended prisoners and thought many inmates didn't need to be behind bars.
He was both. In the first half of his life he was a brilliant and ambitious Boston lawyer. He wound up in the inner circle of the Nixon administration. He helped Nixon win the 1972 election in a landslide. Yet life felt empty to Colson, as he retreated to law practice.
Something bigger than politics was going on. He had a classic Christian conversion. He realized he was full of pride and sinful and offended God, not just the Watergate prosecutors chasing after him.
He pleaded guilty to Watergate-related crimes and did time behind bars.
He spent the second half of his life visiting prisons, launching Prison Fellowship, encouraging volunteers to visit prisons, getting massive amounts of Christmas gifts to children of prisoners.
All his gifts and skills got dedicated to the cause of Christ.
In Indiana in the 1980s, he partnered with then Secretary of State Ed Simcox and several General Assembly members to adopt alternatives to prison, or what came to be called community corrections. Colson started Justice Fellowship, advocating similar initiatives in other states. Later Colson became influential behind the scenes with President George W. Bush, prompting a major federal effort to help prisoners come back into society in a productive way.
As a Prison Fellowship board member, Simcox visited prisons with Colson and learned a more personal and profound lesson up close.
"He helped me to see what brokenness is. That's at the heart of prison ministry," said Simcox, now an executive with the Indiana Energy Association.
"You have to be broken in Christ and see the depth of your sin before you can be made whole," Simcox continued. "It's true for all of us, but you see it up so close in prison. They're stripped of all the trappings of society. All that offenders can cling to is faith in Christ. It leads men and women in prison to a deeper level of faith than is appreciated by those of us who have not fallen that far. It's brokenness, it's surrender, it's total humility-all you have is your faith in Christ."
Which Charles Colson died last week? The good guy and the bad guy.
More than any man of his generation, Colson showed us how Christ can truly change a life for the better.