Over the weekend Frank Schaeffer published one of the angriest and most ill-timed screeds I’ve ever read. On his blog he wrote a dyslogy of Charles Colson (1931-2012), the evangelical Christian Right spokesman who died Saturday, and called it, “Colson: An Evangelical Homophobic Anti-Woman Leader Passes On”.
Apparently Schaeffer wrote one post, pulled it, and then rewrote it so he could “get it right and make more of it” the second time. I didn’t read the original, but the second goes beyond criticism of Colson himself and takes the form of a manifesto against a number of far right conservative activists and operatives. He takes on prominent Roman Catholics like Peter Kreeft and Richard John Neuhaus, decries projects like Evangelicals and Catholics Together and The Manhattan Declaration, and excoriates these folks for their “dirty tricks” in advancing “nothing more than oppressive ideas rooted in an anti-Constitutional theocratic far right wish list for changes that were supposed to roll back the parts of the democratic processes – say Roe v. Wade, women’s rights and gay rights — that far right Catholics and Protestants didn’t approve of.”
Not exactly subtle or nuanced. Or kind, especially given the timing.
Here are a few excerpts of Schaeffer’s dishonoring memorial to Charles Colson:
“Evangelical Christianity lost one of its most beloved and bigoted homophobic and misogynistic voices with the death of Charles W. ‘Chuck’ Colson, a Watergate felon who converted to ‘evangelicalism’ but never lost his taste for dirty political tricks against opponents.”
“Colson emerged from prison with a new mission to use his newfound evangelical ‘born-again’ platform to help prisoners. For a time he seemed to have actually changed course and worked for prison reform and prisoner care. Then (very much like his good friend Franklyn [sic] Graham) he reverted to type and began to fight in the far right holy war against the Democratic Party, women, gays and progressive causes.”
“Few men have done more to trade (betray?) the gospel of love for the gospel of empowering corporate America and greed through the misuse of the so-called culture war issues to get lower middle class whites to vote against their own economic interests in the name of ‘family values.’ Wherever Nixon is today he must be welcoming a true son of far right dirty politics to eternity with a ‘job well done.’”
Perhaps Schaeffer thought it necessary to loudly counter the overwhelming chorus of tributes and appreciations being expressed for Colson. Though some media outlets seemed to focus more on Colson’s Watergate years as a way of trying to show a more “balanced” picture of the man by emphasizing some characteristics of his life they found unacceptable, nearly everything I have read has recognized a transformation in Colson’s life. All remark upon a clear change in the course of his life that led to a number of good works on behalf of neglected people (prisoners through Prison Fellowship, Justice Fellowship, and the Inner Change Freedom Initiative, as well as their families through Angel Tree). Most have also documented his conservative views and writings and activism on behalf of conservative moral and political issues, but few have spoken their opposition to those views in this season of Colson’s death with as much venom and vitriol as Frank Schaeffer.
In the comments after his post, he made this remark: “I knew Colson and talked to him. there is nothing I said in the post that in one way or another I didn’t say to his face or in print when he was alive and could respond.”
Does that make this kind of dyslogy appropriate? I find it hard to commend spitting on anyone’s grave like this.
I have had an on-again off-again relationship with Frank Schaeffer’s writings ever since he first began publishing as a young evangelical. He is sharp, and sharp-edged, and not always comfortable for me to read. At times he comes across as adolescent, pompous, and full of himself. But then again, I turn the page and he gives an insight so clear it takes my breath away. I like a lot of what he writes about leaving evangelicalism, finding a home in the Orthodox Church, and coming to peace with his unique and rather “crazy” (his term) upbringing. I can appreciate his story and his journey. But it scares me to hear anyone so dogmatic, intense, and angry about political issues (on the left or right) that they would spew such venom on a man with whom they disagree so soon after his death.
It seems Frank Schaeffer is still fighting the culture wars, now for the other team. He retains the fundamentalist streak that he got honestly from his father and takes it to another level.
I think he missed a great opportunity to speak the Gospel here, and I wrote the following comment to him on his blog:
Frank, I am no unalloyed fan of Colson. That’s not really my point. I also would not deny that there are times when commentary such as you give here is appropriate when engaged in responding to those with whom we disagree. I also would understand if you feel like someone should counter the overwhelming eulogizing that is going on at the moment for Colson. However, I think you are doing more damage to your own reputation and the causes you passionately believe in to speak this way about someone in the immediate aftermath of his death. It will only stir up his defenders and create a fog of useless debate and angry give and take.
If Jesus could speak forgiveness to those who had just cruelly shamed and beaten him and driven nails in hands and feet, surely we who bear his name can at the very least be silent at the death of even our worst enemies.
• • •
In contrast to Schaeffer’s bitter denunciation, let me point out one of the better tributes to Colson, written by conservative opinion writer Michael Gerson’s tribute in The Washington Post — “Charles Colson found freedom in prison”. Gerson calls Charles Colson “the most thoroughly converted person I’ve ever known,” and he shares this personal reflection:
…I first met Chuck more than a decade after he left the gates of Alabama’s Maxwell prison. I was a job-seeking college senior, in whom Chuck detected some well-hidden potential as a research assistant. In him, I found my greatest example of the transforming power of grace. I had read many of the Watergate books, in which Chuck appears as a character with few virtues apart from loyalty. I knew a different man. The surface was recognizable — the Marine’s intensity, the lawyer’s restless intellect. The essence, however, had changed. He was a patient and generous mentor. And he was consumed — utterly consumed — by his calling to serve prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.
Gerson does not focus on Colson’s political advocacy or activities on behalf of conservative causes as Schaeffer does, but sees him almost entirely through the lens of his work on behalf of prisoners through Prison Fellowship, the ministry he founded after having been a prisoner himself.
Chuck was a powerful preacher, an influential cultural critic and a pioneer of the dialogue between evangelicals and Catholics. But he was always drawn back to the scene of his disgrace and his deliverance. The ministry he founded, Prison Fellowship, is the largest compassionate outreach to prisoners and their families in the world, with activities in more than 100 countries. It also plays a morally clarifying role. It is easier to serve the sympathetic. Prisoners call the bluff of our belief in human dignity. If everyone matters and counts, then criminals do as well. Chuck led a movement of volunteers attempting to love some of their least lovable neighbors. This inversion of social priorities — putting the last first — is the best evidence of a faith that is more than crutch, opiate or self-help program. It is the hallmark of authentic religion — and it is the vast, humane contribution of Chuck Colson.
For a more comprehensive overview of Colson from a deeply sympathetic and honoring standpoint, read Jonathan Aitken’s piece in Christianity Today: “Remembering Charles Colson, a Man Transformed”.
I also recommend Timothy Dalrymple’s moving reflection on prison ministry: “When I think of Chuck Colson’s legacy, I will think of a living parable of how Christ’s grace redeems even those the world called unredeemable.”
• • •
I was helped by his early writings (ghost-written though they may have been, as Schaeffer alleges), and especially appreciated The Body as one of the more thoughtful evangelical books about ecclesiology that I had read at the time. I appreciated his conversion story, and I was moved to learn how God turned a felon’s personal brokenness not only into personal salvation, but also into ministry to needy people — prisoners and their families.
On the other hand, over the years I found Colson’s columns and commentaries disappointing and at times disagreeable because they reflected culture war views and practices of the Christian Right that I came to reject. I liked that as a Protestant he courageously and creatively engaged Roman Catholics and sought a form of missional ecumenism with them; though again it was too close to the cesspool of American politics for my liking.
Chuck Colson was a good speaker. I heard him preach once here in Indianapolis and I recall him talking about why he believed in Christ’s resurrection. He debunked the idea that the disciples conspired to fabricate the story that Christ rose from the dead. With a twinkle in his eye the convicted Watergate felon said, “I think I know a little something about how impossible it is for a few men behind closed doors to conceal a conspiracy!”
Whether one agrees or disagrees with his culture war politics, I would aver that Colson manifested the grace of the risen Lord working in and through his life. That’s something no one can conceal.
Rest in peace, Chuck Colson. At this time we call upon the Lord, in whose name you were baptized for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. For all the good he worked in and through you, we give him thanks. For all in you that he forgave, we honor his mercy.