Who Was Chuck Colson?
About the Guest
Like a stone cast into still water, each person has a ripple effect on the lives of those around him. Owen Strachan, an associate professor of Christian theology, joins Dennis Rainey in remembering the life of Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, who died in April 2012.
Owen Strachan joins Dennis Rainey in remembering the life of Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, who died in April of 2012.
Who Was Chuck Colson?
Bob: In the early 1970s, every day, your newspaper had an article about Watergate.
Anchorman: It began before dawn Saturday when five intruders were captured by police inside the offices of the committee in Washington. Mr. Nixon made these points—he admits that overzealous workers in his own reelection committee may have been involved in the Watergate bugging caper.
President Nixon: The easiest course would be for me to blame those to whom I delegated the responsibility to run the campaign, but that would be a cowardly thing to do.
Reporter: The President is gambling—gambling that the Congress doesn’t have the courage to impeach.
President Nixon: And I want you to know that I have no intention, whatever, of ever walking away from the job that the people elected me to do for the people of the United States. [Applause]
Chairman: The committee will be in order. In pursuant to the rule, we will proceed to the consideration of the proposed Articles of Impeachment.
Clerk: Twenty-seven members have voted, “Aye.” Eleven members have voted, “No.”
Newsman: Tonight, the world waits to hear from President Nixon. All indications are that he will announce his resignation as the 37th President of the United States.
President Nixon: I shall resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, April 14th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll spend time, today, learning about a man who went from the center of a scandal to the arms of the Savior—Chuck Colson. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Thanks for joining us. Do you remember the first time you met Chuck Colson?
Dennis: That’s a good question.
Bob: Was it when we had him here for FamilyLife Today, or had you met him before?
Dennis: I think I’d met him before; but certainly, when he came here and we had him out to the house for dinner—both he and his daughter—had one of the most entertaining, educational—
Bob: I’ve heard you talk about that night.
Dennis: Oh goodness! I mean, there are some interesting dinner party guests. Have you ever heard the question about, “Who would you have at your dream dinner party?” Well, I’d have Chuck Colson. I’m going to tell you—he could tell some stories all the way back to the White House. As is obvious, he went to jail for some of the things that took place back then.
Well, we have a guest who has written a book about Chuck Colson. It’s called The Colson Way. Owen Strachan joins us on FamilyLife Today. Owen, welcome to the broadcast.
Owen: Thank you so much for having me, Dennis—great to be here.
Dennis: It’s great to have you back. You’ve written a dozen books now. You and your wife Bethany, along with your three children, live in Kansas City, which has that other baseball team across the state from the St. Louis Cardinals. [Laughter]
You are a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
You start the book with a story about how you started working in Washington, DC, in the State Department. Why did you start the book with that story?
Owen: I started the book with that story because that was my entrée into Washington, DC, personally. Now, of course, like so many folks out there / so many listeners, I had seen DC—the halls of power—on the nightly news. So, I was acquainted with Washington, DC of course; but when I worked at the Department of State in 2004 as an intern in the Office of White House Liaison—that was during the presidency of George W. Bush—I found myself confronted with power—face to face, though. This wasn’t on the news at night / this was walking the halls of State; for example, I rode the elevator with world leaders—not because I was important / I was a lowly intern—but because they were coming to State for legitimate global business.
One day, I was down in the State Department cafeteria, getting some good pasta—randomly, there was a really nice pasta station there—just so you know. I came around the corner—almost nobody was in the cafeteria at this time. I don’t know why—and I almost bumped into a very straight-walking man—impressive with all sorts of military decorations on his person. It was none other than Colin Powell—this was when he was Secretary of State. He looked at me and said, “Hello.” I looked at him and said, “Hello, sir.” And that was it. That was our—the sum total of our transaction / our conversation; but that was a little microcosm, for me, of just how up-close-and-personal you could be to genuine global power in DC.
As somebody who had never been there, I think my experience is similar to that of many Christians, today—we look at DC on the nightly news, or whatever / on our iPad—and it seems far off; but in reality, Christians do have connections now to global power / to national power.
Yet, many of us feel uncomfortable, today. The political climate has become more hostile to Christian beliefs. So, we feel like we’re in this political climate, but not of it. We’re confused today, and The Colson Way is my attempt to reckon with that state of affairs.
Bob: Dennis and I were around when Watergate happened. We remember Chuck Colson on the nightly news being taken to jail. We remember hearing that he’d been born-again. We remember the cynicism about: “Is this just a way to kind of get a shorter jail sentence, and is he going to live out time in a country club prison?” and “Was there something, really, that happened in his spiritual life?”
I remember seeing him, 25 years later, on Larry King’s show, and I thought, “Today, he is known more for the work he’s done pouring into the lives of prisoners than he is for his own White House liaison.” What a testimony—
Bob: —to a life that shows what redemption can do; right?
Owen: That’s exactly right. That’s why I wanted, really, anybody in the church—but especially men and women of my generation / the millennial generation—to come into contact with this hero, who so powerfully evidences the reality of conversion. I mean, you can’t explain the Colson story without at least some grasp of this doctrine of conversion and how God upends our lives and puts them to work for His glory.
So, I wanted my peers to recognize that conversion is real / that it really does transform us—as it did for Chuck Colson—and we could talk more about that in terms of the details—and that you don’t need to have worked for Richard Nixon, or for a president, or be a global celebrity to be salt and light in a Matthew 5 sense, right here and right now. So, that’s really my goal with The Colson Way. It’s not simply to gaze at this museum piece and say:
“Wow! What an impressive person.” He was impressive, but I want to fire up the church today—
Owen: —to go and do likewise.
Bob: So, tell anybody, who is 45 or under, who Chuck Colson was during his time in the White House—what happened, how he wound up in jail, and how his life was turned around.
Owen: Yes; so, Chuck Colson is from hard-scrabble Boston—he is a Swamp Yankee. That’s what he called himself all his life—he wasn’t high-born or something like this.
Dennis: I didn’t think the Yankees had anything to do with Boston. [Laughter]
Bob: It’s not that kind of Yankee. You’re still thinking about baseball here. [Laughter]
Owen: We just lost half our listeners, here, thanks to me. [Laughter]
So, he ends up doing very well in school. He turns down Harvard University—sits across the desk from a Harvard admissions counselor and says he doesn’t want to go to Harvard. There was this streak in Colson—in his psychology—that always seemed to own being an underdog. That’s going to really come into play in his life later on. We’ll see that worked out in his story.
He ends up going to Brown University—so he gets an Ivy League University—that’s part of his pedigree—becomes a Marine / loves the Marines. This is era of Chesty Puller—when Chesty Puller’s this kind of this figure who symbolizes that the Marines are not going to take anything from anybody. They will advance no matter the obstacles. He, then, goes into procurement for the Navy and ends up working in politics.
Long story short, he ends up sitting across the desk from Richard Nixon in 1969, and Nixon offers him the position of Special Counsel to the President. Colson serves in that role for three-and-a-half years, and he really does the dirty work for the Nixon Administration—at least some of it. There was plenty of dirty work to go around, but he is called Nixon’s Hatchet Man. That becomes a very famous descriptor of him that takes him a lifetime to live down, really.
In 1973, as you have mentioned, he’s implicated in Watergate. He ends up going to prison in 1974. He’s released in ’75. Just before he goes into prison—
—in ’73, he’s converted. So, when he gets out of prison, he’s got this new purpose / this new reason to live. That shapes the rest of his life.
Dennis: And Owen, as you were talking, I was thinking: “Wait a second. We interviewed Chuck”—Bob, you remember—“back in 2005”—
Dennis: —“here on FamilyLife Today.” I think we ought to listen back to his description of his conversion. It was a profound moment.
Chuck: I would sit in my office and look out over the beautifully-manicured lawns of the south lawn of the White House and think about: “Boy, this is pretty good”; you know? “Grandson of immigrants, comes to this country, rises to the top, earns a scholarship to college, has been a success at everything he’s ever done—and here I am. What’s it all about?”—and had this incredible period of emptiness.
Then, I went to Boston one day. After I left the White House, I went back to my law firm—had a meeting with the President of Raytheon, one of the largest corporations in America, because I was once again to be their counsel—
—I’d been counsel before I went to the White House. Now, I was going back to be counsel again. And he, Tom Phillips, the President, just seemed so different. He was calm, and he was peaceful. We had a great conversation. He started asking me about me and my family and how I was weathering in Watergate.
I said: “Tom, you’ve changed. What’s happened to you?” He said, “Yes, I’ve accepted Jesus Christ and committed my life to Him.” He kind of looked away when he did that, almost like he was embarrassed to say it; but he shocked me. I took a firm grip on the bottom of the chair. I’d never heard somebody say something like that—that boldly.
Dennis: Now, wait a second! You hadn’t grown up in the church, then?
Chuck: Oh no. I’d been in church twice a year, if that, and would say I was a Christian because I grew up in America. It’s a Christian country, and I wasn’t Jewish—so, I must be a Christian. I had no idea what a Christian was—no clue!
And he said to me, “I’ve given my life to Jesus Christ.” It was shocking words. But over those next several months, I began to think about that conversation and wondered what he really meant and why he was so peaceful and why his personality had changed so dramatically.
So, in the summer of 1973—in the darkest days of Watergate / the world caving in—I went back and spent an evening on his porch of his home outside of Boston—hot August night. He witnessed to me—told me what had happened to him / told me his story. It was an amazing story.
He, also, read to me a chapter out of C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity, about the great sin—the great sin, pride. It was me Lewis was writing about. I realized that my life I thought was idealistic—I was trying to do all these things—my family / I was trying to serve my country—it was all about me, and it was pride. I didn’t give in. He wanted to pray with me / he led a prayer, but I didn’t—
Dennis: You resisted?
Chuck: I resisted; sure. I’m too proud—big-time Washington lawyer, friend of the President of the United States.
Dennis: You didn’t want to bow to anybody; huh?
Chuck: That’s right!
I went out to get in my automobile and started to drive away. I got about a hundred yards and had to stop the car—I was crying too hard—called out to God. I said: “Come into my life. If this true, I want to know you. I want to be forgiven.” That was the night that Jesus came into my life. Nothing’s been the same since / nothing could ever be the same again.
Bob: Well, that, again, is Chuck Colson sharing about how he came to faith in Christ.
We’re talking to Owen Strachan who has written a book called The Colson Way. And of course, you read Chuck Colson’s book, Born Again. Had you ever heard him tell that story?
Owen: I had not heard it. In his book, he says that he multiple times repeated this to God: “Take me. Take me.” He didn’t know the language of Christian doctrine / he didn’t know much about theology, but he knew that coming to Christ was fundamentally being taken by God. That’s key for our understanding of Christianity today and being converted.
Dennis: And listening to him retell that story—again, I go back to the dinner where Barbara and I had him and his daughter in our home. It was fascinating for him to describe what a thug he was. The concept of Hatchet Man—to someone who has not been in Washington—I think we have kind of a cleansed version of Hatchet Man, like it’s dipped in mercurochrome. He did a bunch of dirty things. He described himself in pretty earthy language in terms of what he was like. He was not—he said, “I would not have been someone you would have wanted to be anywhere around.”
Bob: Well, and one of the evidences that this was, in fact, a genuine conversion and not a foxhole moment of desperation for Chuck Colson—when he found himself in prison, rather than sitting in a cell, thinking:
“How can I maneuver my way out of here?” or “How can I get favors?” he started to really develop compassion for his fellow prisoners. That birthed in him what would become his lifelong mission following his conversion.
Dennis: Well, now, wait a second, Bob. I just want to check with the guy who wrote the biography of Chuck Colson. [Laughter] Here is a guy, who’d been used to getting his way—and just because you are transformed, doesn’t mean all the bad habits die. Some of them die a hard death.
Bob: That’s true.
Dennis: Did he try to make some power plays to get out of prison?
Owen: That is a great question; and he, in fact, did the opposite. The reason he ended up going to prison is because he had his lawyer—this is really unusual—he had his lawyer craft a plea of guilty to obstruction of justice. He didn’t think the judge was going to receive it, but the judge did. Again, the irony here is that Chuck Colson essentially put himself in prison because he recognized, after his conversion, he had to be honest that he had planted stories against opponents of Nixon.
He had played hardball as we were talking about earlier.
Even though Colson did not do a fraction of what was alleged he did during his days under Nixon—he didn’t try to fire-bomb the Brookings Institution or something like this, like his critics said—he still was guilty / he was a sinner, and he had an attack of conscience after coming to faith. So, he did serve his time in prison.
In prison, he did not try to get out of the hard work that prisoners had to do, but he did see—I’ve got to tell this quick story. He did see a prisoner named Rodriguez, for example, who was a man who suffered from seizures and had a very hard life. He picked fights with bigger inmates and prison guards and all this awful stuff. It was hard to read this story in Colson’s autobiography—it’s so sad.
Rodriguez, one day, got beaten to a pulp by a much stronger inmate. He was left on the ground, bleeding.
Colson wanted, desperately, to help Rodriguez. This guy was in a separate cell. He couldn’t reach him, and this man was crying for hours. Finally, guards came and took Rodriguez away. Colson never heard from him again / tried to find him——never could find him. All that was left on the ground was blood—the blood of Rodriguez. That stayed with Chuck Colson for years. That was part of the reason why, after prison, he goes into prison ministry—to help men just like that.
Dennis: Interesting you should tell that story because one of the last times I was with Chuck Colson was here, at FamilyLife. We had done the interviews. I had grabbed him on his way out of the office; and I said: “Chuck, I have one last place on this document that we created, back in 1992. It’s called the Family Manifesto. Over 2,000 Christian leaders from around the world have signed this document, and it hangs in the rotunda downstairs, here in our office.”
I said: “I’ve got one last spot / one last blank place that holds hundreds of signatures. Would you sign it?” And he said, “Of course! Where’s the pen?” So, I got the facilities crew to come take it off the wall, break down the Family Manifesto, rip it out of its—
Bob: —out of the frame.
Dennis: —out of the frame. And I was so disappointed because you can’t read his signature. [Laughter] I mean, it’s—
Dennis: —“C, slash; C, slash.”
Dennis: And it’s like: “Oh, I need to put a Post-it note here: ‘Chuck Colson closed this baby out here.’” [Laughter]
Here’s my great regret—as he was walking out of the door, he was on his way to a prison—never been there—but he decided he was going to visit some prisoners south of our headquarters here—
—60/75 miles. He said, “Hey, you want to go with me?” I didn’t know about it in advance—didn’t have the margin in my schedule—but I’ve got to tell you—I wish / I wish I’d had a chance—shall I say it?—to go to prison with Chuck Colson the second time because he loved prisoners. He loved prisoners, and his life truly was transformed by Jesus Christ.
Maybe, there is a listener, right now, who, maybe, your big problem is pride—and by the way, if you don’t know that it is,—
Bob: —it is. [Laughter]
Dennis: —it is.
Dennis: It is yours, it’s mine, it’s Owen’s, it’s Bob’s. Owen, what would you say to that person, right now, who is listening and been convicted like Chuck Colson?
Maybe, they are not weeping and having to pull off to the side of the road, but they know it’s time to do business with God. What would you say to them?
Owen: I would say:
Now is the hour of salvation. There is no time like now. Confession and repentance is the very gateway to life and to joy. So, right now, wherever you are / whatever you are facing, turn to Christ, just like Chuck Colson—cry out to God. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t have to be formal—Christianese. Cry out to God: “Take me! Take me!” Ask Jesus to save you and wash you clean of all your sin.
And here is the thing—you can know for certain He will wash you white as snow. He will put you to work in His Kingdom. He will give you purpose and meaning. You don’t have to be a celebrity like Chuck Colson. You don’t have to be talked about on a radio show like we are now, but you can know that God will give you a reason to exist and a cause to serve.
Bob: The promise of the gospel is: “Sin is forgiven. Our lives can be transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit, and we have a hope that we didn’t have before.” And Chuck experienced all three of those promises as a reality in his life.
Dennis: Here is the hope that you have and these are the words of Jesus in John, Chapter 5, verse 24—Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life.” That describes Chuck Colson, dramatically, and describes me, dramatically.
Bob: Well, and it describes the path that is in front of every person too. There are, in fact, two ways to live—
—you can live a self-directed life or you can live a God-directed life. And Chuck Colson was living the self-directed life until God got his attention and turned him in a whole different direction. On our website, at FamilyLifeToday.com, there is a link called “TwoWaystoLive.” Just ask yourself the question: “Right now, today, which path am I on? How am I living?” Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
There is also information on that website about the book that Owen Strachan has written, called The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World. What can you learn from the life of Chuck Colson about how we should be living as followers of Jesus? That’s what Owen has captured in this book, and you can order copies from us—again, the website, FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order at 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, we have some friends who live in Boise, Idaho, who are celebrating today their 27th anniversary as husband and wife. John and Gail Blattler said, “I do,” on this day in 1989. “Congratulations!” to John and Gail. We think anniversaries are important. We think they matter because each one is a milestone in building a legacy—something you’ll pass on to the next generation about faithfulness, about love, about perseverance, about marriage by God’s design. That’s what you guys are living out; and it’s what we’re all about, here at FamilyLife. We want to be providing practical biblical help and hope each day to keep you on the right path and to keep you celebrating anniversaries.
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One final note—and that is—if you’ve got an anniversary coming up, we’d love to help you celebrate this year. We’ve got some suggestions / some ideas that we’ll send to you by text or by email as your anniversary approaches. We just need to know the date. So, go to FamilyLifeToday.com and leave us your anniversary date; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY and tell us when you’ll be celebrating and whether you’d prefer text messages or emails.
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And we hope you’ll be back with us again tomorrow. We’re going to continue to look at the life of Chuck Colson. Owen Strachan will be here—hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with special help from Mark Ramey. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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