Liars, brutes, and lazy gluttons?

A grape farmer in Crete offers two clusters from his vineyard as a gift.

“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:

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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 //

Resisting the powers of greed

Philippi 4blog

This dungeon at Philippi is the traditional place where Paul and Silas sang hymns at midnight.

In the name of Jesus, Paul and Silas healed a slave-girl at Philippi whose owners exploited her for money as a fortune-teller (Acts 16). When the owners “saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” Officials beat the two, then clamped them in stocks in jail. There Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns at midnight, when a violent earthquake shook the prison, setting all captives free.

Next to the landfill near my home in Indiana is a thousand-inmate county jail that nets a profit each year by renting cells to other counties and Federal Marshals. Now there is the possibility of a second prison facility, this one an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) complex for undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation. It would be owned and operated for profit by a private company. The proposed jail would hold more than a thousand, mostly Hispanics who made a perilous passage to this country seeking employment and safety. They have broken the law.

People at Philippi and elsewhere accused Paul of breaking the law, and he wrote his letter to the Philippians from a prison, perhaps at Rome. Speaking the gospel even in chains, Paul said his faith had “become known throughout the whole imperial guard.” His courage inspired other believers “to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear” (Philippians 1).

Christians are speaking boldly and without fear against the ICE detention center in Indiana. Mennonite pastor Neil Amstutz recently said at a public meeting, “We are here because [we] follow a Lord who, as a child, was himself a vulnerable refugee in a foreign country . . . We are here because the Bible commands us to show compassion to the foreigner and the stranger in our midst, to treat the least of these as if we were treating Jesus himself.”

An acquaintance incarcerated in our nearby jail for failure to pay vehicle fines told me, “When you are poor, it’s bad.” In addition to locking up immigrants, the United States imprisons more of its own citizens than any other country on earth–about 750 out of every 100,000. Prisoners are likely to be young, poorly educated, and black or Latino.

Christians should not be scofflaws, and prisons can have the legitimate function of protecting society from dangerous individuals. But locking up the poor or deporting the sojourner does not align with the Hebrew prophets or with Jesus. Like Paul, we should appeal to a higher law for justice and compassion, and seek more creative responses to social problems.

God pays attention when people are behind bars. A violent earthquake shook the jail at Philippi, liberating Paul and other prisoners. Paul cared enough about the jailer to save him from suicide and to show him the love of Jesus. I am awaiting an earthquake in my city as followers of Jesus sing hymns, pray, and resist powers of greed and xenophobia that make money from the suffering of others.

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0410 (4)

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Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and travel by vehicle to see more. Note that this tour cannot be a large group, and we are near capacity for registration. Contact TourMagination promptly if you wish to join.   See

Danger and loss lie that way

We had not traveled the whole way to Crete to be intimidated by a few washed-out roads! Determined to cross the island to the south coast, Ellen and I rented a sturdy SUV and headed into the drenched central mountains. Our destination? A tiny harbor called Fair Havens where a merchant ship carrying the apostle Paul once anchored (Acts 27).


From the rainy central mountains we saw sunshine in the bay at Fair Havens (modern Kali Limenes) where Paul’s ship anchored.

If we were tense driving mountain roads in stormy weather, how anxious must Paul have been when he arrived at Crete? The apostle was a prisoner, appealing his case to Nero’s court at Rome. His life was at stake. Further danger came from making such a sea journey late in the sailing season when storms could sink a ship.

Unlike modern sailboats with deep keels, ancient sailing vessels could not “beat” upwind. They only could run with or sail across the wind. Unfavorable conditions quickly could blow a wind-powered ship far off course.

Staying near land as long as possible, Paul’s ship had followed the coastline from Palestine up to southern Asia (modern Turkey). From there the vessel turned southwest until “with difficulty” it rounded the east end of Crete and continued along the south coast to the harbor at Fair Havens.

Ellen and I headed toward the harbor by land, crossing the central mountain range in cloud and mist. But as we crested Crete, the heavy weather broke, and the south coast came into view. Sunlight streamed down on Fair Havens!

When Paul arrived there, he told his captors that it was too dangerous to continue further. But the ship captain had a mind of his own, and insisted they at least sail to the west end of Crete for the winter.

When the boat weighed anchor, a violent northeaster caught them, blowing the ship far out into open waters. The only option was to continue westward and hope for the best. Paul had warned that “danger and much heavy loss” would accompany such a voyage.

Sometimes that’s what I want to say when I see polarization and partisan behavior in the church. Sometimes I sense danger and heavy loss ahead when my government ignores environmental warnings, cuts benefits for the poor, gives tax breaks to the rich, stokes racism, or aligns with dictators. I am not a prisoner, but I am along for the journey with my church and my country.

When Paul’s ship got into serious trouble at sea, he declared, “You should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete.” But the apostle did not linger long with “I told you so.” Instead, even as his vessel careened toward catastrophe, Paul as prisoner testified to the saving power of God. He encouraged fellow travelers and prayed with them. He so cared for the crew that they chose, apparently against standard pratice regarding prisoners, to spare his life rather than execute him when shipwreck became certain. Six hundred miles west of Fair Havens, after a torturous passage, the ship carrying Paul disintegrated on the coast of Malta.

Paul’s dilemma at Crete reminds me that difficult or dangerous circumstances sometimes are completely beyond my control. Then I remember, with Paul, that a loving and merciful God is sovereign. What will I do to show God’s love to fellow church members or fellow citizens if, God forbid, crisis and hardship follow in the wake of bad choices others have made? And who will mediate God’s grace to me when I make bad choices?

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill ****************************************IMG_0425

Come with my wife Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour accessible even to non-athletes like myself. Dates are May 14-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum. Details are still pending but we likely also will hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route, and more. Interested? See

Like the first syllable of shiitake

What would it take to make Saint Paul cussing mad? Fellow Jews or Christians maintaining barriers that kept others from full acceptance in the faith community, that would do it. Harsh language about such exclusion in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi makes me consider how easy it is to raise the bar in the church today for people whose background, culture, or life experience are different from mine.

Philippi toilet with copyright mark--small file

A Roman era public toilet at ancient Philippi still has two stone seats mounted above skubalon pits, and a trough for fresh water at the feet of users.

Recently I asked a Mennonite genealogist to enter my name into his database and see what emerged. A few days later he delivered an eighty-page notebook with charts and names of hundreds of my Mennonite Swiss and German ancestors. My biological forebears were among early European Anabaptists. It was my ancestor, Hans Reist, who had the dispute with Jakob Ammann in 1693 that led to formation of the Amish church. I am a descendant of Hans Herr, Mennonite patriarch of Pennsylvania whose 1719 house still stands as the oldest in Lancaster County.

Add to this Anabaptist family heritage the fact that I went to a Mennonite college, studied at three seminaries, hail from a long line of church leaders, and am ordained.

The apostle Paul would not be impressed. In his letter to Philippi, Paul rehearses his own religious credentials: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews . . . as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” All this status, of which Paul once was so proud, he now counts as “rubbish” (skubalon, Phil. 3:8).

Actually, Paul’s language is stronger than most modern translations allow. We should render skubalon in English like the first syllable of shiitake mushroom. Paul is frustrated enough to slip in a rude word that appears nowhere else in the Bible and only rarely in ancient literature. He is angry at himself and others whose legalistic or genealogical boundaries exclude Gentiles or make them feel like second-class members of the body of Christ.

Skubalon comes to mind when I find a Roman era public toilet among ruins at ancient Philippi. Relieving oneself apparently was a social occasion in the Roman world: eight or ten stone toilet seats, placed close to one another above skubalon pits, once lined walls of the small room. To clean themselves, users dipped a stick with sponge attached into a little trough flowing with fresh water at their feet.

Skubalon also comes to mind when I find monuments to spiritual pride or legalistic boundaries in my heart or in my church.  Let it be said that I do not look or act like the average Mennonite or average Christian on this planet. Today the median Mennonite in the world is a black African woman, and that is representative of the global Christian church. That reminds me to receive and welcome people into my local congregation who come from the global south or from cultural, educational, or linguistic background different from my own. What binds us together is sins forgiven through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and lives transformed by the power of the Spirit.

As a historian, I find family history fascinating and instructive. I am grateful for education I received. But if I ever start to confuse all of this with status in the church, it is time to review Paul’s words about all the entries in his religous résumé: “I regard them as skubala, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8–9).


© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine on 8-19 September 2016. See

Exaggerated stuff in Christianity

“Yes, we are Christians,” an elderly man said on the Greek island of Milos after giving directions to my wife Ellen and me. “But we don’t believe the exaggerated stuff.”


Next to this church on the volcanic island of Milos we asked directions from George and Helen. Within walking distance are some of the oldest Christian catacombs, and the site where the Venus de Milo statue was found.

That unexpected comment came after I noticed small silver crosses he and his wife each wore. “You are Christians!” I said. Friendly conversation followed, and we learned their names were George and Helen. I pressed for an example of “exaggerated stuff” in Christianity.

“We like Jesus,” George allowed, “but we don’t believe in the resurrection.” My biblical imagination went on full alert: this was the same response certain Greeks gave the Apostle Paul almost two millennia ago! When Paul mentioned the resurrection at Athens, “some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’” (Acts 17:32).

Helen and George wanted to hear more, and invited us for coffee in their humble home. There we explained that we were Christians visiting sites in Greece related to Paul and the early church. George told how he had traveled the world in the merchant marine. Learning that I am a minister, he posed a question: How could God punish his Son for sins of humanity? What kind of father would do that?

Don’t think of it so much as God punishing his Son, I said. Think of Jesus as God-with-us. God was fully present in Jesus, taking on the brokenness of the world. The cross shows how much God loves, not how angry God is. Resurrection shows that God has chosen to overcome evil with forgiveness and love.

George and Helen seemed drawn to this image of God, and went on to share concerns about their own health and family. Ellen and I offered to pray with them, and both were in tears when prayer ended. “Jesus is present here,” I said. “This is the power of the resurrection.”

George excused himself to the next room to regain composure. Helen went to the kitchen and retrieved two small magnetic refrigerator icons—not of monetary value, but beautiful. “Take these,” she said with a smile. We thanked them for their kindness, and I left my business card.


Three months later Christmas greetings arrived from Greece—addressed to “Father Nelson.” George and Helen wrote, “We wish and hope you have a mery-mery Christmas. . . Pray Lord for us as you once did in our little house in Milos!”

A letter we wrote after my heart surgery in January prompted a three-page epistle in return. “I can feel it was a serious long vicissitude,” George wrote of my operation, “and obviously very painful for your intimates! . . . For this we’ll pray Saint Judas the Thadeus! He was a step brother of Jesus.”

George was referring to Jude, one of the Twelve also known as Thaddeus. A website says Jude is “patron of desperate situations, forgotten causes, hospitals, impossible causes, and lost causes.”

Not sure I like being placed in such dire categories. But George promised to send me an icon of Saint Jude, and I will receive it with gratitude. “We promise to tell him always about you and pray,” George wrote. “He will hear our words and God will give you health and strength to continue.” Ellen and I will continue to write, and will pray that George and Helen get beyond Saint Jude to know the presence of the risen Christ in their daily lives.

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine in September 2016. See