Our Passion Narrative
“Will you really lay down your life for me?”
In Christ we enter into our own passion narrative. We are called to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus. The scandal of the Cross, the murder of God, takes place in the midst of political ambiguity and seemingly accidental circumstances. I remember being troubled as a thirteen year-old by the death of Dr. Paul Carlson, a medical missionary in the Republic of Congo. Carlson was falsely accused by the rebel Simbas of being a major in the American military. His long track record of being a medical doctor and church leader in the Congo was betrayed by false accusations and allegations.
On November 24, as Belgium paratroopers were landing in Stanleyville, a large group of hostages, including Carlson, were led by their Simba guards out into the middle of the street where they were caught in the cross-fire. In the malay some of the hostages were hit, others ran for cover. A small group ran to the shelter of a house and clambered over the porch wall. One of the hostages leaped over the wall and reached back to grab Carlson. He had his fingers on Paul’s sweater when a young Simba rounded the corner and fired off five shots, killing Paul Carlson instantly. A second or two later and he would have been over the wall. As I remember it, his dead body was shown through out the world on a full page in Life magazine.
I questioned God’s sovereignty. To my impressionable mind, Dr. Carlson was more a victim of tragic circumstances than an ambassador for Christ who gave his life for the gospel. Since then, I have come to see that the Christian’s cross, like Jesus’ cross, must be interpreted on two levels. On the one level, confusion and ambiguity surround the meaning of our suffering. From this perspective, Dr. Carlson’s death appears meaningless. He was the victim of tragic circumstances that might have been different. Why didn’t God give him an extra two seconds to clear the wall?
But seen from another angle, Paul Carlson died like his Lord. The seemingly random circumstances and political upheaval cannot comprehend the deeper meaning of his life and sacrifice. The surface meaning of the accidental moment does not come close to comprehending the orchestrated movement of the sovereign plan of God. Dr. Paul Carlson laid down his life for his Lord.
Jesus appears as the victim of circumstances—a friend betrays him, popular sentiment turns against him, a ruler concerned only with political expediency hears his case, and his disciples abandon him. But then we grasp a deeper truth. Jesus dies (in accord with Old Testament prophecy) as the lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world (Luke 24:25-27; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8). There is an inevitability about his death that lies outside historical circumstances and human arrangements. We cannot begin to understand the suffering and death of Jesus apart from God’s interpretation of the event. God infuses the Cross with meaning from three primary sources: the history of God’s revelation to Israel, Jesus’ self-disclosure, and the apostolic witness. There is a tremendous redemptive purpose arising out of the muddle of historical circumstances. This glorious purpose is not the product of human imagination and wishful thinking. It is the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan of redemption. The real scandal of the Cross lies in the fact that God in Christ, the Savior of the world, was crucified.
Four months before Paul Carlson died he preached in Lingala at the Wasolo Regional Church Conference on 1 Peter 2:21-24:
“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. . .He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”
“At this conference,” Paul began, “we are going to think about following Jesus. It is not hard to follow Jesus when all goes well, but sometimes it is difficult to follow Him when the road is difficult.” After he described the state of persecution for Christ’s sake in various regions in the Congo, he said, “We do not know what will happen in 1964, until we meet together again. We do not know if we will suffer or die during this year because we are Christians. But it does not matter! Our job is to follow Jesus.”
From the New Testament, Carlson described the persecution experienced by the early church. “How does all of this apply to us at Wasolo?” Paul asked. “Jesus is asking us if we are willing to suffer for Him. This is of the greatest importance to all of us Christians here today.” Then Paul introduced the sacrament of Holy Communion. He said, “We are going to gather together at the Lord’s Table. Before taking part, I think each person should ask themselves if they are willing to suffer for Jesus Christ if need be—and if he or she is willing even to die if necessary—during this coming year. Taking part in Communion means union with Jesus. Union with Jesus sometimes means joy—but union with Jesus sometimes means suffering. My friends, if today you are not willing to suffer for Jesus, do not partake of the elements. If you do take the cup and bread here today, be certain that you are willing to give your life for Jesus during 1964 or 1965 if it is necessary. To follow Jesus means to be willing to suffer for Him. Will you follow Jesus this year?”
Within two months many of the Congolese believers who heard Carlson’s sermon that day and participated in Holy Communion were dead. Severe persecution fell heavy on the church. Along with Paul Carlson, these martyrs leave a testimony that inspires and challenges our faithfulness for Christ and His Kingdom. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and the trajectory of obedience is no mystery.
Upper Room Reflection
We live and die by faith. How does that truth impact our interpretation of Paul Carlson’s death?
Do you agree that all Christians live out a passion narrative?
When did you first realize that your life was marked by the cross of Jesus Christ?
What does it mean to you to lay down your life for Christ?
 Lois Carlson, Monganga Paul (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 127-130.