Charles Colson: 1931-2012. May His Memory Be Eternal

Charles Colson died today. He was 80 years old. I first met Colson at a conference at Washington, DC and was struck by his magnanimous character and intelligence. Everyone knows his story. Colson was a ruthless political operative in the Nixon administration, got caught up in the Watergate imbroglio during the Nixon administration and went to jail.

I heard him explain his experience in prison during one of his talks. It was the lowest point in his life where he had lost everything and began to question purpose, decisions, and direction. He was visited by a friend (former Minnesota Governor Al Quie) who shared with him how Jesus Christ came into the world to redeem man. Colson listened, cried out to God for help and, as his life would later prove, God heard him. His repentance was deep and lasting.

Prison opened his eyes not only to God, but the desperate conditions of other prisoners. He founded Prison Fellowship, an organization they helped prisoners while incarcerated, after they got out, and their families. The Russian Orthodox Church called on Prison Fellowship after Communism fell to help them build viable prison ministries in Russia.

Colson’s work grew to incorporate what he called teaching the Christian World View. He saw that decline in culture was moral in nature and that a return to the values and precepts of the Christian faith were the only hope for cultural renewal. This meant that he had to do the work of an evangelist. It also meant that a deep ignorance among Christians about their own history, the history of Western culture, and the viability of the Christian message in a relativist age needed to be addressed. That led to ecumenical outreach, and it was at one of his ecumenical events that I first met Colson.

I attended a conference with Christian leaders (cultural activists mostly) from all types of Christian communions; the first Orthodox priest ever invited to such a gathering. Most of us were not academics but more of what I call “rubber meets the road” types; people used to debate, interaction, dealing with crisis, and so forth. As such, the conference had a very practical, even edgy feel to it at times. All shared the conviction that the Christian faith has a public dimension and that we should not cede the public square to secularism. Christendom is, well, Christian and no amount of brow-beating, public scorn, the insecurity and impotence of liberal Christianity, or any other malady should stop us from boldly speaking out with intelligence and conviction.

It was there too that I first recognized how much that Orthodoxy has to give the culture. I saw that many Christians of other communions are waiting for us to step to the plate and make our contribution. They welcome us.

Out of that conference came the idea for the Manhattan Declaration, a document asserting that Christians would not forgo the moral mandates of the Christian faith even if the dominant culture or, God forbid, the government demanded that we do. The Declaration was roundly criticized when it was released a year later including in Orthodox circles. However, the recent Obama mandates that attempt to force the Catholic Church to act against its moral teachings show the signers understood the currents of culture better than their critics did.

I spoke with Colson through out the years, most recently last month in Naples where I live. He always had a deep appreciation for Orthodox Christianity and was especially interested in the resurgence of the Church in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church has shown deep prescience about the Western cultural struggles, much more so than any other foreign patriarchate, and has garnered the notice of the cultural thinkers on the conservative and non-secularist side of the divide.

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus said we are more united in the honest expression of our differences than in pretending that no differences exist and he was right. This is what he called an ecumenism of the Holy Spirit. Colson believed that too. He could bring different people together to work in that common and needful commission of restoring the religious and thus moral foundations of culture.

The world has lost a good man. We will miss him. May his memory be eternal.

Colson at the signing of the Manhattan Declaration:


  1. cynthia curran says

    I agree that Chuck is one of the few christians that was highly active but spent time in prison. Anyway, Chuck is right the left wing of Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholics don’t like it since it deals with the social issues. Early Church writings, Law Codes in the Byzantine Empire and other Orthodox nations state that homosexuality is not moral and abortion is wrong. Also, the right wing of Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholics is wrong also since they don’t believe in dealing with heretics. And on some Orthodox or Protestant web sites they opposed doing anything with Rome on moral issues because of relations between Orthodox and Catholics since the middle ages and particulary in eastern europe or Protestants digging up an exaggerative verison of Foxes’ book of Martyrs.

    • Geo Michalolpulos says

      Fr, I remember attending the OCL conference in Houston two years ago when one of the GOA’s leading cheerleaders came to bamboozle us about the first Episcopal Assembly. In the private Q & A held the next day, I mentioned Colson and his work (I can’t exactly remember the context). The priest in question haughtily sniffed “I’ve seen his numbers, they’re not that great.”

      I was stunned. I sputtered. That’s when I knew that we’d been had. What fools we all were to actually believe that the GOA was actually interested in the success of the EA or in engaging in real ministries.

      • George, you could not be more right in stating that the GOA is not interested in truly successful ministries. I have always held that any program the GOA supports or runs cannot be “too sucessfull” less the whole idea of omogenia before Orthodoxy be challenged. Sure a couple of converts here and there is nice but the 79th Street power base would never tolerate large amounts of converts for fear of losing power.

        It is sad that at one time the Greeks could evangelize the known world yet today they shun evangelism for fear of upsetting the omogenia. It also shows you that the entire idea of omongenia is not based on culture but genetics/race.

        • Fr. Hans Jacobse says

          The concept of omogenia really sees the Church as a synagogue. There is no sense of a new nation, or believers being called out of all nations. As such, I don’t see how it cannot but stifle the Spirit of God.

    • M. Stankovich says

      It saddens me to imagine that yet another public figure – whose ultimate place in history, judging by the tribute, is more significant to others than I would personally ascribe – is described as an “admirer” and held a “deep appreciation” for the Orthodox Church. Apparently, as well, he held similar moral, political, cultural, and religious views as the “conservative” Orthodox (or they as he, I’m not exactly sure). Yet, unlike the examples of Professors George Barrois of Princeton and Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale, being a “friend” of Orthodoxy is not the same as “those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (LK 11:28). And so I am left to consider, as we wait in the on-deck circle, what is it we bring to the “plate?” Judging solely by outcome, it is quite obvious that we are not bringing the irresistible “attractiveness” of the heart; the endless “provocation” of the mind; or the inexpressible joy of the soul described by St. Seraphim that, together, constitutes the Truth we hold. Of course they “welcome us” and look for our “contribution” because it is more of the same: back-slapping “we-are-all-good-people.”

      And what will happen on the day we assume the role of Christian “radical,” again Elijahs (cf. MT 11:12ff) taking the kingdom by force, that we are called to assume? When, in fact, the “rubber meets the road?” We will see how fine and offensive the line between “conservative” and “fanatical” become. There will be no turning back, a fact I believe the “conservative” Orthodox are profoundly aware, and therefore choose to remain in the shallow end of the pool.

      Chuck Colson was a “friend” of Orthodoxy, and I pray that now he sees.

      • Fr. Hans Jacobse says

        Change “Orthodox” to “Catholic,” remove the references to Barrios and Pelikan, and the logic would be just as true for a Catholic that defines “Truth” as “Catholic Truth” as it is for you who defines “Truth” as “Orthodox Truth.” No, this is not an argument for denominational relativism, and no I will never be anything but Orthodox. But to say “Truth” is synonymous with “Orthodox Truth” really doesn’t rise above the level of polemics, not matter how elegantly you try to phrase it.

        In your eyes, you are right. In the eyes of your Catholic brother (the triumphalist one), he is right. So who is right?

        See the problem? The logic doesn’t really work. It offers no knowledge that illuminates the distinction that you claim it makes. That means that the scold it is meant to enforce doesn’t hold any weight either.

        BTW, you never answered the questions I posed in my earlier reply.

        • M. Stankovich says

          For someone who identifies himself with the “debate” of the public square, you seem inordinately “scorned,” chastened, and disapproved, Abouna. Perhaps a re-read of Ephesians 6:13ff?

          I would note the distinct “aroma” of relativism in the air following a read of your response; and no, I’ll substitute nothing for anything because it is ridiculous. What rings in my ears is the hymnography following the Eucharist: “We have found the true faith…” Not surprisingly, these are the same words proclaimed by each Council in succession, “joining with those Fathers before us… this is the true faith, this is the Orthodox Faith.” He who was before Abraham (JN 8:58) and is the Truth (JN 14:6) is the “Orthodox Truth.” This is the faith of the Fathers and what distinguishes us as not a “third way, but the way by which “one comes to the Father.” (JN 14:6) This is the centuries-held radical message and faith of our Orthodox Church! Are there other, alternate “ways” to the Father? As I have written here many times, “God is our Father, and the Holy Spirit goes where He wishes.” We know with complete certainty where the Truth is, and it seems to me this is sufficient. And the fact that this certainty is not “irresistible” to our friends and admirers leads me to conclude as I have. Fr. Schmemman insisted that the sin of Pilate was not giving Christ over to be crucified, realizing his innocence, but rather in his statement, “What is truth?” (JN 18:38)


  1. […] in the story. I can't imagine how it got by the editor.Syndicated by Atom☆ ☆ ☆4) Charles Colson: 1931-2012. May His Memory Be Eternal Fr. […]

  2. […] AOI “One of the most wonderful things about being a Christian is that I don’t ever get up in the […]

  3. […] communions are waiting for us to step to the plate and make our contribution. They welcome us.Read “Charles Colson: 1931-2012. May His Memory Be Eternal” on AOI’s Observer.Category: News and EventsRelated Tags: American Orthodox Institute, […]

  4. | Koinonia says:

    […] Johannes Jacobse at AOI has a absolutely lovely and gracious essay about the late Chuck Colson. I have taken the liberty […]

Speak Your Mind