Why Colson spent Easter in prisons

BY TERRY MATTINGLY Published: April 30, 2012
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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. I first wrote about this service for Scripps Howard in a column days after the service.

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 offense, of course -- out of a desperate prisoner?

"Has anything like that," he asked, with a knowing smile, "ever 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 had been betrayed by a friend? Perhaps a friend even 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.