It was a crucifix that caught my daughter’s eye during ArtPrize this year.
There’s no shortage of crucifixes to be found at the annual art competition. From the 2011 popular vote winner, depicting a bored looking, white American Jesus backlit by a Kinkade-esque sunset, to one of this year’s installations, “The Moment, Endured,” a more severe portrayal made entirely from nails.
“The Moment” was actually one of two crucifixes displayed at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, one of the venues for ArtPrize. But it was the other one, a piece called “Love Does Not Harm,” that made my 4-year-old ask me to stop the car as we were driving by a couple Saturdays ago.
We circled the block a few times until we found a place to park. The sky couldn’t make up its mind between “partly sunny” and “vaguely apocalyptic,” so I put her in a stroller and we made a run for it.
“Love Does Not Harm” is the work of a local designer named Timothy Gabriel. His crucifix doesn’t exactly play on subtlety. If Mia Tavonatti’s “Crucifixion” pandered to a deeply religious West Michigan audience, “Love Does Not Harm” poked it with a stick.
The silhouetted figure is made up of anti-gay slogans. It hangs from a cross comprised of similarly ugly rhetoric. In place of the traditional “INRI,” the sign at the top features the logos of Christian organizations that oppose same-sex marriage. The entire scene is draped against a rainbow banner declaring that “Love does not harm.”
The piece drew attention for the political statement it made (and because it was vandalized during ArtPrize). But I wish we’d pay more attention to the scripture Gabriel chose. Whether he realized it or not, Romans 13:8-10 is one of the seminal texts of the New Testament.
“Love does no harm to a neighbor,” Paul writes. Every other law there is—don’t murder, don’t steal, etc.—is summed up in this one command: love others. Do not harm.
Paul is not breaking new ground here. He’s echoing one of the most pivotal teachings of the gospels, in which Jesus declared that “love God” and “love your neighbor” are the two greatest commands in the Bible—and that they are two sides of the same coin. The way you demonstrate love for God is by loving your neighbor. You cannot do one without the other.
Would anyone like to argue that we’ve kept this law with respect to our gay and lesbian neighbors? Have we ever been good at “doing no harm” to those who are noticeably different from us?
Even the Vatican is beginning to wrestle with these questions, acknowledging this week that gays and lesbians “have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community” and suggesting we should be capable of “accepting and welcoming their sexual orientation.” (Though they backtracked a bit under the weight of a conservative backlash.)
Gabriel’s piece did not major on subtlety or nuance. But it challenges us to consider one of the more central teachings of the New Testament and its potentially jarring implications for today. Regardless of how we may think about sexuality or marriage, it is something that should make us pause.
Of course, I didn’t get into all this with my daughter. She is only four, after all. She’s too young to read the words that made up the silhouetted figure. But she knows a picture of Jesus on the cross when she sees it, even an abstract one. Her eyes were also drawn to the colorful words behind the crucifix, so I told her what they said.
We talked about “love does no harm” and what this means. We talked about how we should accept and embrace others, no matter how similar or different they are. I told her this is part of what it means to love others the way Jesus loved us.
And then we went home and had lunch.
A week later, we made one more visit to ArtPrize.
As we were driving, out of the blue my daughter asked if we could see Gabriel’s piece again. “The one that says, ‘Love does not harm,’ ” she explained. Then she told me what it means—how we should accept others, no matter how similar or different they are. She remembered our week-old conversation almost perfectly.
Artistically, it may not have been the greatest piece at ArtPrize this year. It may have struck some as a bit heavy-handed in its message. And of course, many will find it divisive. But its core idea, “love does not harm,” shouldn’t be controversial. More to the point, Gabriel’s piece helped my daughter grasp something central to the Christian faith—how we are called to love as Jesus loved.
If you read the title of this post, then you know the not-so-surprise ending: Timothy Gabriel is an atheist. In his official ArtPrize bio, he refers to himself as a proponent of secularism. And I am eternally grateful to him for teaching my daughter something important about Christianity.
When we stop viewing those who are different from us—whether it’s in their orientation or their beliefs—as enemies, we might just find they have something to teach us.
What have you learned about your faith from surprising sources?
Photo of “Crucifixion” via ArtPrize.org