Injustice smells. There is a nauseating odor to it: toxic, enraging, sad. And when we see someone who cheated and betrayed, someone who let us down, it is hard to find satisfaction more pleasing to our guts than to beat him up, to make him pay for his sins.
Two politicians made me think of this last week. The first was John Edwards, an once-promising American presidential candidate, charming in his looks and in his words, but who betrayed his terminally ill wife and lied about. Caught right in the middle of his presidential campaign, Edwards faced last week his trial. But as Washington Post contributor Christ Cillizza pointed out, it was a trial more about feelings than legal procedures: “This trial — regardless of the outcome — amounts to one last chance for the public to express its disdain for a man who cheated on his terminally ill wife, lied about it, fathered a child out of wedlock, lied about it and is now left searching for some strands of redemption or, at least, forgiveness.” It is another chance to look at a man who fell, fell from really high up, and make him pay.
The second politician, Charles Colson, had an even more spectacular fall: the Watergate disgrace, maybe the most famous corruption scandal of modern politics, when Colson helped a team of then-president Richard Nixon’s reelection committee to break into and tap the offices of his political opponents. Colson and others were sent to prison for this, but then he underwent a conversion, narrated in his bestseller Born Again, and became a devout Christian. Colson then dedicated the second part of his life to start a ministry that reaches out to prisoners, and become a major evangelical leader.
The thing is: Colson died last week, and, curiously, his obituaries at major newspapers have varied in tone. Some narrated the whole of his life, and praised his conversion and the good he made after it. Others, however, were cynical, and implied that his life change was just smokescreen, that Colson remained the Watergate dirty trickster for all his life, that the redemption of such a treacherous man could not possibly be true. How could it?
Redemption is hard to believe in. It really is. Especially because it is such a personal matter: I am treacherous too, I’m the one deserving condemnation, and I can’t possibly believe that I could find redemption. An observer of the reactions to Colson’s death put it well: “When you read those who smirk and dismiss the Chuck Colson conversion, … [r]ead a subtext that belongs to all of us: the fear that the criminal conspiracy we’ve all been a part of will be exposed, and just can’t be forgiven. Read the undercurrent of those who find it hard to believe that one can be not just pardoned, but “born again… That’s indeed hard to believe.”
But what if redemption is possible? What if people like Edwards or Colson can really be forgiven and start anew? What if I can be forgiven? What if I can end this life with my head raised high, with no finger pointing at me, redeemed by the grace of Christ, and have something like the following scenario for Colson’s death be true also for me?
I have to believe that when Chuck Colson opened his eyes in the moments after death that he didn’t hear anything about break-ins or dirty tricks or guilty consciences. I have to believe Mr. Colson heard a Galilean voice saying, “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25:36). I have to believe that he stood before his Creator with a new record, a new life transcript, one that belonged not to himself but to a Judean day-laborer who is now the ruler of the cosmos… That’s good news for guilty consciences, good news for recovering hatchet men and women like us.
Indeed it is good news, almost too good to be true. But true it is, and deliciously, liberatingly, scintillatingly good too. Redemption is possible, not despite the greatness of our sins, but because of the greatness of Jesus’ grace for us.
If redemption were not possible, I’d have to give up my ministry to the imprisoned. But if we believe in the redemptive power of God’s grace, and the persistence of the Holy Spirit, redemption is not only possible, it approaches being inevitable. Prison is a desert place. The divine presence is announced in the desolation and silence.