JACKSON, Tenn. – Oct. 4, 2002 – The man in the black-and-white photo sits leaned back, jauntily holding a pipe that dangles from the corner of his mouth as a gray curl of smoke suspends in the air around him. His eyes are hard and focused, and his demeanor seems to ooze a sense of power and perhaps a touch of arrogance. From the caption, the viewer learns that he is testifying before a congressional committee regarding the great Watergate scandal.
For Chuck Colson, that picture taken in the early 70’s by a Washington Post photographer and shown to him recently in an interview seems to be from a lifetime ago. He acknowledges that for younger generations who came after that infamous memory in American politics, it stretches even farther, accounted for only by a few paragraphs within the pages of student history textbooks. But the difference between the man in the picture and the man today is a spiritual transformation that Colson hopes future generations can understand and possibly never forget – the main reason why he has allowed Union University, the oldest institution related to the Southern Baptist Convention in the nation, to recently name a professorship after him, with Union Christian studies professor Hal Poe as the first recipient.
In his own words, Colson describes himself as a person who always drove himself very hard, a competitive achiever who believed from his earliest memories that one had to work hard and strive and desire to get to the top.
“I was extremely competitive – I had to be the best at anything I did,” said Colson. “I now realize that a lot of arrogance builds up when you get like that, because I can’t ever remember anything I tried that I didn’t do. Even in high school, when I tried out for the editor of the school paper and didn’t get it, I started a competing newspaper and we beat the school newspaper in circulation numbers,” he remembers, chuckling.
That drive and determination to be the best very quickly helped him find himself, at 38, as the lead counsel to the President of the United States, Richard Nixon.
“President Nixon generally used me as a sounding board on most of the things he did,” said Colson, who quite often would walk into the Oval Office prepared to talk about political campaigns or domestic policy issues and be asked to help the president in a major decision he was facing on Viet Nam. “He liked to use me to talk things through, and I would often come out of his office having perspired through my shirt, because you’re sitting there thinking that the answer you give is going to affect lives. It’s a frightening responsibility.”
Then the Watergate scandal came hard and fast, and with Colson as one of the major players behind the political cover-ups, he underwent intense media scrutiny, congressional hearings and ultimately, prison.
“I thought my opportunity to accomplish anything really significant in my life was over once I was in prison and public enemy number one,” remembered Colson, who gave his life to Christ before he was sentenced to a one-to-three year sentence of which he served seven months.
“In the past 27 years since I’ve been out of prison, I’ve seen how God has used my broken experience for His greatest glory, and I’ve seen what it is to live life as a Christian,” said Colson, adding that he still remains in awe when people tell him that a book or speech has touched their lives. “I don’t take compliments easily – I feel like what I do is God’s business.”
The 71-year-old founder of Prison Fellowship continues to stay busy in his work as an author, speaker and visiting prisons as chairman of Prison Fellowship, now in its 26th year of service with more than 50,000 volunteers worldwide helping prisoners and their families learn about the love of God. Colson remains passionate about the lives of prisoners as well as the fundamental beliefs of Christianity and the Christian worldview, particularly with future generations – one reason he was happy to allow his name to be used at Union.
“My first reaction when I was asked about the chair was no – it seemed silly to have my name on something,” admitted Colson. “But when I realized that there is one institution really committed to what I talk about everyday – that Union is one of the few universities in America that’s intentionally setting out to bring a Christian worldview to bear on education and understanding, what better place if my name could help the worldview and world teaching continue in this institution.”
Colson, who spoke as the commencement speaker for Union’s May 2000 graduation, has steadily forged a close relationship with both the university and its 15th president, David S. Dockery.
“I read his speech about worldview before I knew Dr. Dockery,” recalled Colson. “I said, whoever this man is, he really has it [the same understanding of Christian worldview]. I’ve come to admire and appreciate him.
“Union is more than just another Christian college attempting to educate kids, Union stands as a symbol for something that hasn't happened across this country,” said Colson. “This is the one place where you really do what has become almost a cliché in Christian higher education – every school says we want to integrate Christian culture, and it usually means a couple of courses in Christian studies.”
The Jackson university, Colson said, is integrating faith and culture by going to the very basic suppositions, and “really getting to the heart of it, that Christian truth is the heart of everything we believe. God cares about all he created.”
Colson also hopes people will understand the purpose of the chair in his name.
“When Joshua crossed the waters, he took 12 stones out of the center of the river, piled them up as a monument and a stone of remembrance that future generations would come and remember the great things God had done for his people,” explained Colson. “Anything said about me has to be a reflection of the great things God has done, not Chuck Colson. I'm able to do what I do today because of the greatest failure of my life.”
It is not his failure but his rescue from God that Colson would like his legacy to leave behind.
“I want people to think that I was faithful to the call,” said Colson. “I’m nowhere near where I’d like to be, but I’d just like people to think this was a guy whom God used and converted and called to himself, and who stayed faithful.”
Specifically, Colson said he would like to leave the evangelical church “with a burden for all of life as a worldview…and committed to doing the gospel in the areas of need.” But, he adds, it has a long way to go.
“The church today is like Chuck Colson in 1973. It focuses on itself and it ought to be expending itself for the culture around it,” said Colson, pointedly. “The two ingredients that will make us transform the culture is seeing Christianity in its totality – its impact on all of life. And then having the courage to do something with our faith…”
A retired social worker, Mary Burrow of Milan, Tenn., attended the chapel at Union University when Colson spoke, and perhaps represents many of those who are challenged by Colson to use their Christian worldview wherever they are, discovering a new insight about herself.
“I spent 52 years in public service, and I have a degree in social work,” said Burrow, who serves on the university’s Board of Trustees. “It never occurred to me until today that I was a missionary right where I was. I guess you’re never too old to learn or be where God needs you.”
“I remember all of those days during Watergate, how the press were all on our driveway and we couldn’t get out of the house,” said Colson. “Seeing your name splashed all over the headlines with half of the charges being false, testifying 44 times under oath, and remembering the kids being ridiculed at school. But I told my wife a while back that as we see God using our experience and what we went through as a way to reach other people – it was all worth it.”
Sara B. Horn,