“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 graciously 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” (Gal. 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 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 judgment 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 across 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 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. Fearmongering about immigrants is a lie.
Social media and politicians hurl labels to wound and incite prejudice: Arab, evangelical, conservative, liberal, Muslim, unemployed, gay, homophobic, global, 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 today.
J. Nelson Kraybill, of Elkhart, Ind., is president of Mennonite World Conference and president emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.