I have thought about this before -- how something intrinsically neutral can speak of incredible beauty or elicit pure horror, simply depending on context.
I'll begin this way: one of my favorite photographs from the time I spent in South Africa is a close-up of a barbed-wire fence. The foreground of the image is sharp and crisp, and in it the dry, caked rust of the wire testifies to the endurance of many seasons. Sunlight brightens one half of the wire, bringing out warm earthy tones of brown and red, while clouds on the move above bathe the other half in deep shade. In the distance, the horizon is a blurred line, a brushy yellow grassland meeting a clear blue sky. There was barbed-wire fencing in several places on the farm where I stayed, weaving patterns across the earth and stories of generations of those who worked the land of South Africa. To me it represented a beautiful thing.
Back in the States I made the photo my desktop image, and one day it struck me that someone besides myself -- a Holocaust survivor, I particularly had in mind -- could experience my treasured image in a radically different way. Through that new set of eyes, barbed wire would not speak of a rich, enduring history, but perhaps of imprisonment, confinement; a twisted history.
That something intrinsically neutral could take on such strikingly polar connotations is perhaps both a cruel and beautiful irony; and we can't avoid it. It simply comes with the reality that all humanity calls this place home and shares the same resources.
So far this has nothing to do with the 4th of July -- or Syria. Promise I'm getting there, though. I see Independence Day as a bittersweet holiday; I'm profoundly grateful for the freedom and safety that I and so many others experience in the U.S., but it's difficult to celebrate wholeheartedly since so many of our neighbors around the world have yet to experience liberty and security themselves. This is not to suggest that America is somehow invincible, or inherently immune to danger or instability (certainly not), but it was poignant for me, this 4th of July, to ponder the fact that while Americans sat back to enjoy a good show the evening of the 4th, thousands of others around the world went through one more evening living in caution or fear, in war zones or under oppressive regimes. As I watched my neighborhood's holiday show, beholding bursts of shimmering mirages and hearing nearby POPs and distant BOOMs, I observed the younger children in the crowd, who, prompted by the fireworks above, burst into their own fits of giggles and glee, and raced across the lake's beach to follow the colors branching out above (or perhaps to put some distance between themselves and the launch site!). It was beautiful, all of it.
But bittersweet, too.
I thought of children the same age in Syria, for whom a similar sound -- the same explosive POP or BOOM that elicited laughter and delight from the children in front of me -- would send them running to take shelter or crouching in a corner. It could even have happened at precisely the same moment, and none of us would have known. Maybe it did, and still none of us know. The irony of it. Like barbed wire all over again.
So here's for you, Syria: a prayer that one day soon the neutral would prompt wonder and not terror, and that one day your quick steps would be a dance of joy and not fear. That freedom and security would be yours as well, and we can celebrate together.
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!