It was in the middle of the week, perhaps a day or two after Dick Clark's passing, that I first learned that Chuck Colson — well-known for his participation in the Watergate scandals, and then for his conversion to Christianity and subsequent founding of Prison Fellowship and continuing political activism — was in such failing health that he, too, would pass away soon. While Clark's death filled me with sadness at the loss of a personality I had come to admire greatly over the years, Colson's passing this afternoon leaves me with a much more ambivalent feeling, and I'm not entirely sure how to respond.
I first became aware of Chuck Colson while I was in college, and at the time came to admire him greatly. I listened to his BreakPoint broadcasts regularly, and in fact still have some written transcripts of broadcasts from that era, having thought them particularly profound. A year or two after I graduated from college, Colson was invited by the college to give the Commencement address, and I remember being upset that he hadn't been invited to speak to my class (in fact, the person we did have was such an unknown, I can't remember who he was, and would probably not remember even if you came right up and told me his name, today*).
My political leanings and stance on biblical interpretation have changed quite a bit since then, and I find my former affection for Colson to be a bit embarrassing. That's not to say that I disagree with everything he's done. I am still impressed by the work of Prison Fellowship, and his efforts for ecumenical (especially evangelical-Catholic) dialogue. And I very much agree with his conviction that Christians have an important contribution to make in the political arena, even while saying so from more or less the opposite side of the aisle these days.
I do remain disappointed in Colson's response to the 2005 revelation of the identity of "Deep Throat," responsible for much what later transpired in the Watergate investigations. I had deeply (if naively) hoped that Colson might have demonstrated an attitude that showed, once and for all, that his famous Christian convictions were even more important than his political ones (which, so far as I can tell, remained essentially unchanged after his conversion). Unfortunately, it was not to be.
What we are left with is a portrait of a person with an amazing conversion experience, who shows a taste of the power that coming to Christ can mean, leaving a legacy of faith for many (especially in the prison population, where he invested so much of his evangelical energies, taking Matthew 25:31-46 seriously), yet who remained a flawed human being. Just as the rest of us are.
For Chuck Colson, those flaws are now firmly in the past. May he enjoy his reward in heaven.
*My grandmother (who's memory is generally perfect on such matters) tells me that the commencement speaker wasn't even a "he" at all, but was in fact Colleen Townsend Evans, a rather famous actress of an earlier era (under her maiden name "Colleen Townsend") who, with her husband Louis (one-time pastor of Hollywood Presbyterian Church, near where I live now), was closely associated with Billy Graham, which would certainly explain the Montreat connection. Sad to say, but my grandma ended up proving my earlier assertion correct. I still don't remember....