What an atheist’s crucifix taught my child about faith

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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 outside 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.

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“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.

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The silhouetted figure is made up of anti-gay slogans. It hangs from a cross comprised of similar rhetoric. 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 the artist claimed it was vandalized during ArtPrize). But I wish we’d focus less on the controversy and more on the scripture Gabriel featured. Romans 13:8-10 is, I believe, 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 any of us like to argue that we’ve kept this law perfectly? When have we ever been good at “doing no harm” to those who are different from us?

Gabriel’s piece does not major on subtlety or nuance. Nonetheless it invites us to consider one of the more central teachings of the New Testament and its implications for us today. Regardless of how we may think about sexuality or marriage, “love does no harm” is an idea that should make us pause and reflect.

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Of course, I didn’t get into all this with my daughter. She’s too young to read the words that made up the silhouetted figure. But she recognizes a picture of Jesus on the cross when she sees one, even when it’s abstract. Her eyes were especially 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 treat those who seem different. We talked about how this is part of what it means to love others the way Jesus loved us.

And then we went home and had lunch.

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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.

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The artist invited people to leave responses on the back. Elizabeth happily drew lots of squiggles.

Artistically, it may not have been the greatest piece at ArtPrize this year. It may have struck some as heavy-handed. And of course, many will find it divisive. But the core idea, “love does not harm,” shouldn’t be controversial. 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? 

8 thoughts on “What an atheist’s crucifix taught my child about faith

  1. Reblogged this on Garden Oasis and commented:
    “What have you learned about your faith from surprising sources? ”
    God indeed is the author of all wisdom, He can use every means of anything the world is to offer to say something to us, for us to reflect and digest the very message God is teaching to us by mere reflecting to the things that are already in front of us.
    I agree to the author of this blog, 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.”
    and that learning will brought us to a more wise and God-obeying citizen. Let us also start learning from the things around us, we will never know how God can surprise us.

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  2. I don’t know that I’ve ever really been surprised to come to a deeper understanding of faith from a particular source.

    If we are ALL created in the image of God, then it’s possible to see glimpses of God in everyone. And by extension, human creativity is a reflection of the creativity of the Creator, so it’s possible to see God whenever someone creates something and exercises that trait which is so very like God. Further, understanding a person’s art is a window to their mind similar to how understanding all of creation is a window into the mind of God.

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  3. In all sincerity Ben, your spreading of lies about me “pandering to Western Michigan” are offensive and certainly not in the spirit of the scripture your entire article is about. You should do your homework and read more than just headlines. Whether you like, respect or even have the ability to see beyond your own limitations is your problem, but as a writer, maybe you should dig deeper for Truth. Maybe you should consult your daughter. She seems blessed with a Grace you are not expressing.

    And btw, I own the copyrights to that image you so unconsciously appropriated for your article. Just in case you are unaware, that is illegal. Gospel is not the only law you should follow.

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