“The Clone Wars” isn’t just a Star Wars sequel anymore. If Chuck Colson has his way, it will also be the title of the 21st century sequel to the 20th century “Culture Wars.”
That’s because Chuck Colson is worried. He’s worried that the intensity of the Culture Wars has begun to wane and the fronts have started to recede as he and other field marshals of the movement (Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, et al.) have begun to age, retire, or pass on. He’s worried that younger generations of Evangelical Christians are interested in a slate of issues other than the pro-inerrancy/anti-abortion/anti-homosexuality trifecta that defined Reagan-era Evangelical conservatism. He’s worried that when his generation of conservative Christians is gone, Christianity will wilt under the influence of liberalism and true faith will wither away.
In short, he’s deeply afraid for the future. And he is equally determined not to let his right-wing theological values succumb to such a bleeding-heart fate. Thus, he has spent the last four years developing a strategy to defy death. Sort of. When the end of his days arrives, he plans to ensure that the Culture Wars will continue by leaving behind spiritual “clones” of himself to hold down the trenches and fight for his brand of Evangelicalism.
I learned of Chuck Colson’s “cloning” aspirations for the first time last week in a Washington Post Lifestyle feature. Now, I am also deeply worried–though not about anything that is driving Colson’s Centurion program. I am deeply worried about the very idea behind the Centurion program. All of us who proclaim Christ would like to see more people profess Christ, and we’re all trying to figure out how “to make disciples of all nations” in a rapidly changing world. The old paradigms for ministry don’t work like they used to, and new paradigms often don’t yet work like the ought to. But whatever the answers are, Colson’s latest offering isn’t among them. It reads more like a Donald Trump take over of the Oprah Book Club than a plan to take on the serious spiritual and moral issues of our time.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against Chuck Colson. In fact, I think his work with Prison Fellowship is praiseworthy and nothing short of remarkable (even though he would probably consider me one of the bleeding-heart liberals he’s concerned about.)
But regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Colson’s assessment of the current state of Christianity in general or Evangelicalism in particular, his solution is at least four parts Colson to one part Christ. And to my mind, this sort of self-centered, self-branding approach to religion is much more detrimental to the furtherance of the gospel than any paradigm shift or doctrinal disagreement.
We in the Church should discuss, and even argue about, the meaning of Scripture and what our priorities as disciples ought to be. Rigorous, earnest debate is how we grow, how we help one another come to a fuller understanding of Christ’s teachings, and how we progress down the road of faith. But as soon as it becomes about us–as soon as we insist that our interpretation(s) and understanding(s) of the gospel should be accepted as gospel–we, like the Apostle Peter, detour suddenly and sharply away from the pursuit of heavenly things and rejoin the pack that is chasing after earthly things.
Take the very name of Colson’s would-be “clones”: centurions. Centurions were commanders in the professional Roman army. By definition, then, they are agents of Caesar, not Christ. They take orders from the rulers of this world, defend the imperial interests of this world, and accomplish their tasks with the weapons of this world. Yes, there are a handful of centurions who feature positively (if not prominently) in the New Testament: the one in Matthew 8 who asks Jesus to heal his servant and of whom Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith;” the one in Mark 15 who, while watching Jesus breathe His last on the cross, declares, “Truly, this man was the Son of God;” and the one in Acts 10, Cornelius, who summons Simon Peter to his home at the behest of the Holy Spirit. But these centurions are hardly representative of who centurions are historically. As such, the term fails to communicate any Christian meaning except within a specific, Scriptural context. Outside of Matthew, Mark, and Acts the centurion metaphor is not one of servant leadership or heavenly example. It is one of earthly power and conquest. Colson’s choice of words is thus tragically emblematic of his worldly ambitions eclipsing his heavenly intentions.
Even if we tie the centurion metaphor strictly to Scriptural antecedents for sake of argument, however, the very idea of creating a “clone” (regardless of title) is antithetical to the spirit of Jesus’ ministry. Christian spiritual growth is about being molded and made more fully into the image of Christ, not into the image of any saint, apostle, or inspirational leader–no matter how accomplished or admirable they may be. As the Apostle Paul himself reminds the Corinthians: For I have been informed concerning you…that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided ? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul ? (1 Corinthians 1.11-13, NRSV). Wanting to be like Chuck–or like Mike for that matter– is not where our aspirations should lie.
Moreover, by seeking to become a “clone” of someone else or to make “clones” of ourselves undermines the work of the Holy Spirit in forming the Church as a dynamic, living extension of the Resurrection. Again, the Apostle Paul: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. …17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12.12-20, NRSV).
The saddest and most troubling part of this article, though, is that Prison Fellowship does not receive a single mention outside the reporter’s biographical introduction of Colson. It is possible that Colson’s work with Prison Fellowship was beyond the scope of the reporter’s focus for the article. Or perhaps Colson has already tapped a successor to lead that ministry and the issue is settled. However, given that this piece is about the future Colson would like to see and his desire to remain influential through his “clones” beyond the limits of his earthly life, it would seem to be a topic relevant to the discussion. And yet it is absent–an absence that leaves the glaring impression that, for Colson, the promotion of self (a la Donald Trump) and the propagation of ideological purity (a la neo-con politics) has taken precedence over the ministry needs of prisoners and their families. I sincerely hope I am wrong about that. But that’s exactly what often happens when we confuse earthly things for heavenly things–whether we happen to be a humble fisherman or a cultural titan.
As we continue to openly and actively debate how we can more effectively reach the world for Christ and continue to develop new paradigms for doing so, perhaps one question we need to ask ourselves is why we would look to the Donald Trumps of the world for inspiration to begin with. My guess is it’s because all of us, not just Chuck Colson, are afraid. We’re afraid of what Scripture and prayer–our true sources of inspiration–will tell us, which is the same thing Jesus told Peter: if any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow Me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for My sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it (Mark 8.34-35, NRSV). And that means that what we really need to do is learn how to surrender, when what we’d rather do is valiantly fight and win a war.