It was in the early 1990s when I was working on a project. I closed the door to my office and said to my secretary, “No matter who calls, I don’t want to be interrupted.”
A few minutes later, I was interrupted.
There she was, my wonderful secretary, LeeAnn Little, saying, “There’s a guy on the phone who says he’s got to talk to you.” I said, “Who is it?” She said, “I don’t know, but he’s very insistent.”
It was Chuck.
Chuck Colson was calling and the first thing he said to me is, “Who is Timothy George?” I said, “Well, I’m a Baptist theologian, I’m a scholar, I’m an historian.” He said, “Well, you’re also the one who wrote that editorial in Christianity Today about Evangelicals and Catholics Together [ECT]. And I had said something good about it. I think I was the only person who said anything good about it at the time.”
So Chuck said, “You’ve got to come and join this project.” Which really at that time was just beginning, begun by Chuck and Richard John Neuhaus, with a vision to bring it together people of deep conviction, Catholics and Evangelicals, to deal with some of the pressing moral issues of our time.
My editorial called ECT an “ecumenism of the trenches.” And it’s a phrase that both Chuck and Richard picked up and used a number of times to describe our project. But over time, “ecumenism of the trenches” became something more. As we were together, facing a common enemy, we began to turn toward one another in love and respect and greater mutual understanding, to affirm that we are indeed brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
Well, two of the things that Chuck most cared about were Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the Manhattan Declaration. I’m so happy to be here tonight to say both of those initiatives … continue today and are growing and are strong, under the leadership of the Colson Center…
We have dealt with the three issues in the Manhattan Declaration — religious freedom, the sanctity of life and marriage, and the ECT process. Now we have turned outward to deal with another question that may be more urgent, or prior to those others, and that is the question of what is Christianity in a culture that is at loss to define anything about the truths of anything. We want to ask that question today as Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
Chuck was a remarkable person in many, many ways. He was a forgiven sinner. He had experienced forgiveness and he knew how to extend forgiveness to others. Many of you were present at the  memorial service we had for Chuck at the National Cathedral. I told the story about Lanny Davis, a Democratic political operative on the opposite side of every issue from Chuck Colson, whom Chuck had approached at a national prayer breakfast dinner. He said to him, “I’ve wanted to talk to you for a long time. I want to ask you to forgive me.”
“Forgive you? For what?” Lanny Davis asked.
“Well, I’m the one who put you on the enemies list during the Nixon days, and that was wrong. Will you forgive me?”
“Of course I forgive you, Mr. Colson.”
Lanny Davis was present when I told that story at the National Cathedral. He came up afterward and spoke to me, tears in his eyes, and said, “I learned something really important from Chuck Colson in that encounter, and I vowed that I would never use the word ‘hate’ about people in politics with whom I disagreed.”
Chuck Colson was a forgiven sinner. Because he had experienced forgiveness, he knew how to extend it to others. He was a lawyer. He was also a very good student of the Bible and theology. He loved history, and the three figures in history who were his lodestars in many ways, who gave him inspiration, include William Wilberforce.
William Wilberforce was a young member of Parliament who devoted his life to the abolition of the slave trade. It didn’t happen quickly. It didn’t happen in a short or easy process. It took a long time, enormous effort over many years. William Wilberforce was a reformer with a long view, and I think that’s what Chuck Colson would ask of us who follow in his steps.
Abraham Kuyper has been mentioned two or three times, and that would please Chuck enormously that Abraham Kuyper is being spoken of at this meeting. One thing we forget about Kuyper is that he was a theologian but he was also a prime minister of the Netherlands. In his day, there were two great problems that he wanted Christians to resist. One was utopianism, the bringing of God’s kingdom to earth by human effort. He knew that was a fatuous dream. The other was sectarianism, withdrawing from the world into a holy huddle. Kuyper said we have to be engaged. That would be a call I think Chuck Colson would want to say to us at this moment in our history.
The third figure was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in 1937 said, when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. So if we follow Chuck Colson, we’re going to keep in mind these lessons from these great three figures.
Another figure in American theology who has had a great influence was Richard Niebuhr. Niebuhr once said this, “Nothing which is really true or beautiful or good makes any complete sense in a given context of history, and therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing which is worth doing can be achieved in our own lifetime, and so we must be saved by hope. And nothing, however virtuous we do, can be accomplished alone. And so we must be saved by love.”
These three remain, faith, hope, love. The greatest of these is love, and Chuck Colson was a man of all three, of faith, of hope and of love.
• Timothy George, Ph.D., is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School and professor of Divinity history and doctrine. He is active in Evangelical-Roman Catholic Church dialogue and was a co-author, with Chuck Colson and Prof. Robert George of the Manhattan Declaration. This excerpt is from his April 9, 2016 remarks at the Wilberforce Weekend in Arlington, Virginia.
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