It wasn’t the typical Bible text for an Easter sermon, but the preacher knew what this congregation needed to hear.
Never forget, he said, what Jesus proclaimed in his first sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.”
This isn’t the sermon that many believers hear on Easter, but it’s the one that prisoners need to hear, said Chuck Colson back in 1992, facing a small chapel packed with men at a federal prison near Denver.
This was also the sermon the former Watergate conspirator kept preaching to flocks behind bars during the decades between his own stay in Alabama’s Maxwell Prison in 1974 and his death on April 21 at the age of 80. Anyone who wants to understand what changed Colson from President Richard Nixon’s trusted “hatchet man” into one of the age’s best-known Christian apologists needs to understand this sermon.
You see, Colson told prisoners across America and around the world, it was radical to proclaim “freedom for the prisoners” during the Roman Empire. And today? Anyone who preaches this message “in one of those nice churches downtown” will get the same icy response that Jesus did.
“The rich and powerful people,” he said, with a dramatic pause, will “run you out of town.”
Never forget, shouted the former Marine, that Jesus died as a prisoner. Was there anyone in the room who had ever been strip-searched, beaten and mocked? Did anyone know what it felt like to have the legal authorities use muscle in an attempt to wrench a guilty plea — to a lesser offence, of course — out of a desperate prisoner?
“Has anything like that,” he asked, with a knowing smile, “every happened to any of you?”
“Amen,” said the prisoners. Some laughed, while others stared at the floor. Many waved clenched fists in the air to urge the preacher to keep going.
Colson kept going. Was there anyone in the chapel who been betrayed by a friend, perhaps even a friend turned around and provided evidence to the state? Was there anyone present who had been convicted of vague crimes?
In the end, of course, Jesus was executed — between two thieves.
But that wasn’t the end of the story, on that particular Easter morning in Colorado, or in any of the other Easter services the former White House powerbroker chose to spend behind bars after he founded Prison Fellowship in 1976.
After Colson’s death, most of the obituaries — especially those produced in elite East Coast newsrooms — focused on his Watergate role and, perhaps, on his pivotal work creating a new and powerful coalition of conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Working with a team of talented researchers and writers, Colson also produced shelves of influential books and commentaries that addressed almost every controversial issue in the American public life and politics.
Sadly, this all-politics DC Beltway perspective may draw attention away from Colson’s trailblazing work in prisons, which ultimately created a network of more than 14,000 volunteers in more than 1,300 prisons nationwide and around the world. He also founded the Justice Fellowship organization, which has worked for the reformation of America’s sprawling, bloated, crowded and, all too often, destructive prison system.
“That’s where Chuck developed his social conscience. It was in prison, in all of those face-to-face encounters with those forgotten souls, ” said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was also Colson’s first research assistant and aide after the creation of Prison Fellowship.
“Chuck was never happier than when he took off his jacket and loosened his tie in a dingy prison chapel somewhere, facing rows of men in metal folding chairs who had big, thick Bibles in their hands. … He embraced as many as he could. He tried to learn their names and hear their stories. He tried to make a difference in there.”