Interview With Jonathan Aitken: Beyond Crime and Punishment

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Jonathan Aitken has been called the British Chuck Colson, and the shorthand is helpful: like Colson, Mr. Aitken was a high-altitude political figure. In the 1990s, he was caught in national scandal and confined to prison. Later, he emerged with a surprisingly mature faith. In the case of Aitken, the fallen Chief Secretary to the Treasury went from prison cell to seminary, from seminary to speaking. He is the autobiographer of Pride and Perjury and its sequel, Porridge and Passion. He has also written Prayers for People Under Pressure. In 2006, Mr. Aitken released Charles Colson: A Life and became president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a leading human rights organization.

The High Calling seized a moment with Mr. Aitken recently to broach subjects such as crime and punishment, grace, forgiveness, and prayer.

Mr. Aitken, in various interviews, you say you’re proud to be a foxhole Christian. Explain what you mean—and now that you’re out of the foxhole, I wonder, is it difficult to hold onto the relationship with God that flourished in prison?

Well, by foxhole Christian, I mean someone who came to faith in conditions of great adversity. The question is, when you come out of the foxhole, do you still hold fast to the faith—to the disciplines? One of my own greatest failings was the sin of pride. I certainly had vast quantities when I was a rising politician. But occasionally, it is also possible to be led astray by, some would say, spiritual pride. Fortunately, God helps you to keep humble.

For example, whenever I gave a really bad speech in politics, people booed or hissed or indicated their displeasure. In the spiritual form, I've noticed that some of the worst talks I ever gave sometimes are most effective because, really, my input is not important. God's input is all-important.

So, I think conversion—in a foxhole or anywhere else—is only the launch of a long unrelenting struggle. You are more alert to thoughts and feelings when you get out of the foxhole, if you’ve been genuinely converted. If you haven't been genuinely converted, you just go back to the old ways.

You work with Chuck Colson, who also had a dramatic and public fall and conversion. Plenty of other leaders have been caught up in negative publicity. When you read newspaper accounts of people like Jeffrey Skilling, or Tom DeLay, what would you say to those people?

I would probably say, "Hello, fellow sinners. How are you getting along?" One of the worst oxymorons in the world is celebrity Christian. And a celebrity Christian sinner is even worse. The only point of this notoriety, I think, is that God may use it to bring in people who otherwise would never come near a church event but do come in almost out of cynicism. They want to reassure themselves that all this Christian stuff is pretty good nonsense and I'm putting on an act.

I think people who have had spectacular falls from grace and then turned to Christ have to put on a double armor against pride—take a double dose of anti-pride or humility pills. Nothing is special about having a well-known fall from grace except that God, in mysterious ways, sometimes uses that. So I don't feel any kinship with Tom DeLay or Jeffrey Skilling.

Nothing is special about being a celebrity sinner; in fact, I actively dislike the term.

You're out of politics for good, now. But in retrospect, do you have advice for people trying to serve God in politics?

First of all, I do not draw a huge distinction between a servant of God in the ordained ministry and a servant of God in politics or business. I'm much encouraged in this view by the work I'm doing right this minute writing a biography of John Newton. One of his major contributions was when Wilberforce in effect said to him, "I'm thinking of coming out of politics and being an evangelical clergyman like you."

Newton effectively said, “No, my boy, you stay where you are and serve God in politics.”

And look what Wilberforce did with that service! So I think the answer to the question is: you can serve God anywhere. I have a piece of new-biographer's gold, which I uncovered thanks to a talented researcher: Newton, before he was called to the ordained ministry, effectively withdrew for six weeks and kept a most detailed diary of prayer and Bible reading, testing his vocation. In politics, of course there were pressures between doing the right thing and staying in office—between upholding God's principles and being popular with the voters or less popular. But whether people are Christian or not Christian, they still respect somebody who has beliefs, principles, ideals, and sticks to them. So I think politics is a real good Christian vocation.

Was writing Chuck Colson's biography in any way cathartic for you?

Well, there were moments of catharsis. People occasionally call me the British Colson. And I always say, "Please don't talk nonsense."

Chuck is one thousand times a better man than I am, and with much deeper history. That said, of course, there are similarities. And we both think we're probably the only two people, at least in the Western world, who were in high positions of power, had dramatic falls because of our own stupidities and follies, went to jail, then were rescued by God's grace and went into—in his case, full-time, in my case, part-time prison ministry. I could see so well when writing the biography, almost intuitively, when Chuck was grappling, and sometimes still grapples, with his demons of pride and so on. But he's a wonderful man. Much more than feeling cathartic, I felt, well, tutored by him as I wrote the book.

Have you read much other prison literature?

Yes, a fair amount. One of my favorite prison classics would be Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But everything Colson has written is worth reading, and there's plenty of good prison writing around. When I review prison books, I'm constantly encouraged by the good writing that comes out.

Most Christians blow past Christ's saying, "I was in prison and you visited me" because it's so far from our experience. Knowing what you know, how do you understand Christ's words now?

Well, I understand it obviously a bit more deeply than many people because, a) I know what it's like to be in prison, and b) I know what it's like to go and visit someone in prison. A sacrifice takes place which often makes prisoners jumpy, nervous, fussy. I used to think, "Is this person visiting me out of sort of excessive kindness? Not because they’re a real friend? Are they coming to patronize me?" And so the prisoner often isn't as grateful as perhaps he should be. So when Christ said, "I was in prison and you visited me," he knew he was setting a high call, a special call—a call which an awful lot of churches don't bother or forget to do.

I often ask a church when I go to speak there: "Do you have any kind of prison ministry unit?" And surprisingly, half the answers are no. Or "Do you have any aftercare, for offenders leaving prison?" And the answer's often no.

Not as much here in the United States, but in the UK, a tiny percentage of churches think they're doing good works but have no prison or aftercare ministry. It's a lot better here in the United States, but still, Christianity has a long way to go in fulfilling that command of Christ.

For a while your life must have been all about asking for forgiveness and forgiving others. You discussed it recently at Laity Lodge. Can you tell our readers here what you have learned about forgiveness?

On the asking forgiveness front, certainly I had a lot of work to do, particularly and above all with God. As it happens, I committed a crime which probably only really affected three kinds of people: 1) myself, 2) my family and immediate circle of rather good friends and relatives, and 3) God.

I understand what King David goes on about in that famous penitential Psalm 51. It's a rather jarring line at first: against you only have I sinned. Well, actually, he's sinned against a lot of people. You know the story of David and Bathsheba. But primarily he had sinned against God—only there's no use in asking for forgiveness from God alone.

You've got to ask forgiveness for your fellow man. I asked for forgiveness from journalists whom I was rough with, even when they were sometimes wrong. So I was perhaps too aggressive. {laughs}

As for getting forgiveness . . . it takes time but it does come. I told a story at Laity Lodge about the monk who met with me in the prison yard. He told me, "If you pray to be able to forgive, you will be able to forgive. It's sometimes difficult, but pray for the gift of forgiveness."

And you were upset about a libelous newspaper article that had just been published.

"Aitken Too Sad to Come Out of His Cell." That was the headline.

Wow. And it wasn't true?

No, so there I was with a sort of furious anger—prison is a pressure cooker which increases some small anger to huge anger. I was walking around the prison yard when this monk came up to me. He had read the article too.

And the monk's advice to you?

He was sympathetic because he knew what was going on outside the prison. He knew of all the nonsense, and he said, "I can see it's a step too far right now to forgive Mr. X journalist. What I advise you to do is pray to God to receive the gift of forgiveness, and eventually you will be able to give it away again." A very good bit of advice.

Prayer helped you survive prison.

Absolutely. And I discovered, as monks have discovered down the centuries, that cells are a wonderful place to pray. I was blessed by never feeling claustrophobic. I was in a tiny space, the cell is. But unlike most American prisons, it was a wall of space, rather than just a kind of cubicle with bars. And in that privacy, and in that stillness, I did feel close to God in prayer. I had never had so much leisure that I can remember, hours and hours of time, so I structured a certain prayer discipline at certain times of day. I kept certain morning, and evening, and midday prayer. I slipped into that so easily. Cells can be very silent places, especially early in the morning.

Before we close, I want to ask about your evident and frequent sense of humor. Where does that come from, and does that play into your healing?

My grandfather was an amusing, witty man, and I can sometimes hear his voice, his inflections. But I'm always aware that for 30-odd years, I trained to deliver a secular message, in often difficult, difficult audiences like the House of Commons. And now I give a talk to seminaries with the title "Why Should the Devil Have All the Best Speaking Techniques?" Of course this is a play on the quote by General Booth of the Salvation Army who asked why the devil should have all the best tunes.

I do feel that any speaker should constantly be sort of shaking hands with the audience, striking his audience, and getting his audience to anticipate something. A speaker should use the best oratorical devices—not tricks, because they're transparent—but the best operating methods to keep the audience alive. And I almost always follow some humor with a rather more deeply satisfying point, and it makes for a good atmosphere. I didn't set out to be humorist or a comedian, but I do believe in using humor as a part of the infantry of negotiation before the real battle of getting a spiritual message across.

And now my final question—which is more global—have your attitudes changed towards crime and punishment?

I have not gone soft on crime just because I've been to prison. I know well there are lots of bad and dangerous people in this world who need to be locked up—people who need to be punished.

But my attitudes toward individual criminals have often softened because I understand some of the reasons they went so badly wrong. For example, people who really have no chance in life to, say, acquire reading and writing skills. Or they come from broken homes. Or spent years in sort of municipal-run care homes where they don't see their parents. And very often they have been sexually abused.

These are not excuses for crime, but there are sometimes explanations as to why the character has gone so wrong. I'd like to think that prison, which expanded my social horizons and circles beyond the limits of my imagination, has given me a greater understanding.