“Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons,” said the apostle Paul in his letter to Titus (1:12). My wife and I found no evidence of such dereliction when we traveled across Crete. We stopped along a mountain road to watch the grape harvest, and a farmer approached our car. With a gracious bow he thrust two grape clusters through the window as a gift. The man was neither brute nor lazy glutton!
Paul usually transcends prejudice. In Christ, he said, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, no longer male and female, for all of you are one” (Galatians 3:28). But Paul’s letter to Titus shows how impatient he could be with the “circumcision party,” Jewish Christians who insisted on adherence to the full law of Moses.
The apostle was a brilliant ambassador of the gospel—and very human. His prejudice against Cretans is unfortunate, and stands in contrast to the rest of his message. Was it fair to quote a stereotype about Cretans written six centuries earlier? Was it wise to cite the very words a Cretan philosopher (Epimenides) used to extol the Greek god Zeus? Regarding Zeus the philosopher wrote,
They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.
Perhaps Paul did not use his best judgement in comments about Cretans. But as happens to all of us, he sometimes reflects assumptions of his culture—in his case patriarchy and tolerance of slavery. We need to discern the arc of freedom in Christ that soars through Paul’s theology, and let prejudices that appear in his letters remind us to examine our own biases.
I was raised in a Christian community where people never used ugly epithets for other ethnic groups. But I sometimes heard stereotypes. An “Indian giver” gave a gift and then wanted it back. An unsavory character might try to “Jew down” the price in a business deal. Puerto Rican migrant farm workers could be housed in shacks because “that’s what they’re used to back home.”
Today people in the United States are told that immigrants coming to the southern border are rapists and drug dealers–when every study shows that such newcomers are less likely to commit crime than native-born citizens. Fear-mongering about immigrants is a lie.
Social media and politicians hurl labels at many groups to wound and to incite prejudice, including: Arab, evangelical, conservative, liberal, Muslim, unemployed, gay, homophobic, global, and socialist. These terms can be simply descriptive. Used as slurs, they carry a subtext intended to trigger fear or hatred.
In the larger trajectory of his letters, Paul points away from such manipulation. He exhorts believers on Crete to devote themselves to things that are “excellent and profitable to everyone” (3:8). In counsel that would end prejudicial behavior, Paul tells Titus to “have nothing to do with anyone who causes divisions” (3:11). That is wisdom sorely needed in church and society today.
© 2019 J. Nelson Kraybill ************************
Join Audrey Voth Petkau and me for a Journey of Hope tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel on September 12-23, 2019:
In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and survey Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the site at the Jordan River where God parted the waters, and Machaerus Fortress where John the Baptist died. In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the life and times of Jesus in a replica of first-century Nazareth.
We’ll sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the Holy City itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect with others on themes of mission and reconciliation, including justice issues of Israel and Palestine, as we travel and worship together.
A second Journey of Hope tour on June 10-20, 2020 can be paired with a stop in Germany for the Oberammergau Passion Play. See //www.tourmagination.com/tour/2020-jordan-palestine-israel/