My WEM Biographies Project has been thrown out of order by my library who doesn’t carry most of the other titles, so I’ve been forced to wait for them on inter-library loans. Which means that I have no idea when they are going to arrive or which is going to arrive first. After two months, the first book has arrived, Born Again by Charles W. Colson.
Colson occupied a position high-up in the United States government, serving as Special Counsel to Richard Nixon during Nixon’s years in the presidency. Named as one of the Watergate Seven, he was tried and sentenced to one to three years in prison. His autobiography is a story of his rise and fall, and finally his rise again to a higher calling.
Colson briefly covers his early life as a U.S. Marine, his education, and the opening of his law practice in Massachusetts, then quickly moves to his initiation into politics and his service to President Nixon. Called Nixon’s “Hatchet Man”, he was quoted as saying that he’d walk over his own grandmother to get the job done. Yet at the time, Colson saw these qualities as necessary in the political world. Using an “ends justifies the means” mentality, he felt that he was helping the president build a world of peace and safety. Ironically, with those altruistic sentiments, came an anger and intolerance against anyone with different opinions:
“….. a Holy War was declared against the enemy — those who opposed the noble goals we sought of peace and stability in the world. They who differed with us, whatever their motives, must be vanquished. The seeds of destruction were by now already sown — not in them but in us.”
Colson shows how good intentions, however noble, can be corrupted without the values of a higher authority than man himself.
With Colson assisting in Nixon’s re-election yet not planning to stay on into the second administration, on June 17, 1972, a security guard discovered five men inside the National Democratic Commitee offices in the Watergate Complex. As the story leaked, a bugging system had been installed in the offices by Nixon’s men. Although Colson had nothing to do with this “scandal”, being Nixon’s henchman, he immediately began to take the heat.
Yet even before Watergate broke, Colson was having a crisis of conscience over his behaviour and the accepted unscrupulous behaviour of others in this political machine. His mind became opened to the immorality rampant in Washington and he strove to reconcile it with his moral principles. When Watergate hit, his turmoil increased:
“In the whole sordid Watergate struggle, the Weicker episode (a senator who told him he wanted to break his nose) for me was the most unpleasant; being falsely accused before millions on national TV, then coming almost to blows with a United States senator. I was used to playing as rough as the next guy, but Watergate was creating a madness I had never witnessed in twenty years in Washington, reducing political morality to the level of bayonet warfare ……… The feeling of empitness was back as well, the questions about myself, my purpose, what my life was all about …. ” (p.118)
Curiously at this time, he began to meet Christians, including Doe Coe, Harold Hughes, Graham B. Purcell, Jr. and Al Quie, congressmen and senators who were part of the political machine, understood the mess but managed to live with integrity and morality within the turmoil. These “brothers” were both Republican and Democrat, and yet party polarity meant nothing to them, as their bond was formed based on the common love of Christ.
In a nationally syndicated column, reporter Nick Thimmesch wrote of the growing prayer meetings:
” ….. spurred by Watergate ….. They meet in each other’s homes ….. they meet at Pryer Breakfasts, they converse on the phone ….. a Brotherhood in belief …. there are many here and more are forming ….. I am not about to say that virtue and nobility are about to envelop the nation’s Capital — this is a tough, hard town. But Watergate has created a great introspection, especially about personal values and this underground prayer movement can provide some peace, and a better sense of direction to many afflicted with spiritual malaise… ” (p. 204)
|Nixon announces release of edited transcripts of
the Watergate tapes
While Colson stuck by the president, professing both of their innocence, with the release of Watergate transcripts, it became apparent that the president knew more than Colson suspected. While Colson had been urging exposure for those involved, behind closed doors Nixon was stonewalling the investigators. Among other regrets, Colson felt that the transcripts showed Nixon at his worst, instead of the complex man he was, a man who was passionate about his country, altruistic, and industrious, yet with faults that were all too common within political culture. The transcripts, however, appeared to vindicate Colson. Even the prosecutor finally acknowledged to the press:
“Colson’s alleged roles in the cover-up and burglary would have been more difficult to prove than those of the other alleged conspirators …… because this man was outside the main stream of the overt acts.” (p. 260)
Finally, with Colson’s indictment, on his lawyer’s advice he pleaded not-guilty, but took the fifth amendment, yet this plea did not assuage Colson’s conscience nor align with his new-found Christian belief. While he was not party to the Watergate affair, he was complicit in a break-in 10 months earlier, a break-in of a psychiatrist’s office to search for information on Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, planning to use the data as a smear tactic against him; Ellsberg was suspected of leaking Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Burdened with his part in this particular campaign, Colson, with the support and prayer of his new friends, decided to tell the truth. It was a shocking decision from a man who, if he’d kept silent, would likely have been acquitted and could have gone on to live a very comfortable existence. However, Colson had been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and was convicted by these words:
“The first step which follows Christ’s call cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. The call to follow at once produces a new situation. To stay in the old situation makes discipleship impossible.” (p. 242)
Colson’s resolution, not only sent his lawyers into fits but came with a cost. However, the new life he discovered held infinity more success and contentment and freedom than his old life had supplied.
On June 21, 1974, Colson was sentenced to one to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
|White House Special Counsel Chuck Colson
Sent originally to Fort Holabird prison, where he was needed as a witness, Colson spent most of his sentence at Maxwell Correctional Facility in Alabama. Initially, while the experience was foreign and unsettling, while reading his Bible, Colson noticed a beauty and wonder in the words, understanding the Trinity in a deeper sense and with a personal message woven within it:
“Just as God felt necessary to become man to help His children, could it be that I had to become a prisoner the better to understand suffering and deprivations? If God chose to come to earth to know us better as brothers, then maybe God’s plan for me was to be in prison as a sinner, and to know men there as one of them. Could I ever understand the horrors of prison life by visiting a prison? The voice inside of me answered: Of course not. No one could understand this life without being a part of it, feeling the anxieties, knowing the helplessness, living in desolation. On a tiny scale, it was the lesson of Jesus coming to us.”
Colson began to see his incarceration as an opportunity to reach out and help people. He began immediately to connect with the inmates, meeting with some to pray, helping others with their letters to gain parole, and even helping smuggle dye into the facility to dye some coats prison-brown so the prisoners would not have to freeze during the winter (Later, he regretted this breaking of the rules, an evidence of his old habit of manipulating situations). Colson had true empathy for these men, many some of who were imprisoned due to mischance, or harsh sentencing. Through his love and caring for the prisoners around him, he began to change some of their outlooks and behaviour, and when he was released from prison seven months later, there were many whom he’d call “friend”.
|Colson on one of his prison visits
photo courtesy of martyangelo.com
While the book ends with Colson’s release, his interactions with inmates didn’t end there. Having an enormous heart for their plight and the struggles they faced, he began Prison Fellowship, an organization that grew to become the nation’s largest, helping both prisoners and their families. In the epilogue of the book based on a study done at the University of Pennsylvannia, Colson reveals that when comparing the inmates who have gone through his program with the general prison populous, only 8% of the his prisoners reoffended within 2 years, compared with 20% of prisoners from the control group and 50% nationwide. With these very impressive statistics, I found some online controversy about them, complaints that of the 177 people in Colson’s study group, that only the 75 people who graduated were used for the study, skewing the figures to his advantage. These complaints appear inconsistent with the purpose of the study. The intent of the study was to show the re-offending figures of Prison Fellowship graduates compared to the standard prisoner. To use prisoners who didn’t fully complete the program would be senseless and not within the study’s parameters. The report as is, does show that if a prisoner stays in the Prison Fellowship program and completes it, he has much better chance of returning to society, becoming a useful member of it, and living a fulfilling life.
Some reviews (and even the introduction to Colson’s book) claim that the main focus of the book is Colson’s conversion and not the Watergate scandal, which isn’t quite accurate. While I won’t argue with the verb “focus,” practically most of the book relates Colson’s political career, and with perhaps ¼ covering the period of his incarceration, the book ending right after his release. However, I do think that the back-story is imperative to build and explain his journey from a cut-throat politician to a committed Christian with not only a love for his fellow man, but a desire to put that love in action to better the lives of others.