14205577_s(AP) Dozens of Malaysian Muslims paraded Friday with the head of a cow, a sacred animal in Hinduism, in a dramatic protest against the proposed construction of a Hindu temple in their neighborhood. The unusual protest by some 50 people in Shah Alam, the capital of Selangor state, raises new fears of racial tensions in this multiethnic Muslim-majority country where Hindus comprise about 7 percent of the 27 million population.

The demonstrators who marched from a nearby mosque after Friday prayers dumped the cow head outside the gates of the state government headquarters. Selangor adjoins Kuala Lumpur. Protesters stomped on the head and spat on it before leaving the site, Xavier Jeyakumar, a state government official in charge of non-Muslim affairs, told The Associated Press.

“This is a sign of disrespect, insensitivity and a huge insult to the Indian community,” he said. (Associated Press writer Sean Yoong contributed to this report.)

After 52 years of independence and we still stoop to this to make a point? There are many stories making the rounds, each giving their own spin on what happened and why. Was this really the work of a group of local residents whose religious sensitivities had been violated to such a degree that they had to take such drastic steps? Or was it the work of agents provocateurs attempting to destabilise the state government for political gain? Whatever it was, stomping on the head of a cow and spitting on it are clearly provocative actions calculated to enrage Hindus. (One can only imagine what the response would be if a group of Hindus had stamped on a Quran to protest the construction of a mosque.)

What has been most disturbing has been the response of the authorities. Apart from a lot of half-hearted statements no one has been arrested for this highly provocative act. It wasn’t too long ago that a junior Chinese journalist was arrested under the Internal Security Act for merely writing about what she heard at an event. Clearly we have a long way to go before we are independent from corruption and racism.

What has been most gratifying however, was that no ethnic and religious conflict resulted from this provocation. In another day and age, Muslims stamping and spitting on a cow’s head would have provoked a violent response from the Hindu community. The history of Hindu-Muslim relations is marked with blood and there are still any number of places in the world where there is still very real tension between the two communities.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for how we should deal with such provocations. Ignore them. May our silence show up such actions as anachronistic, ridiculous, and childish. And ineffective. The perpetrators wanted to incite a violent reaction. They didn’t get it. Of course if there had been serious destruction of property, or the taking of life and limb, the stakes would have been very different. We would have to ask the Lord for fresh wisdom as to what to do if it ever comes to that.

As for Christians, our default position is modelled for us by Jesus on the Cross. In agony as He hung on the Cross, Jesus prays for His enemies:

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34a TNIV)

In my favourite book on forgiveness, the late Lewis B. Smedes writes:

As we forgive people, we gradually come to see the deeper truth about them, a truth our hate blinds us to, a truth we can see only when we separate them from what they did to us. When we heal our memories, we are not playing games, we are not making believe. We see the truth again. For the truth about those who hurt us is that they are weak, needy, and fallible human beings. They were people before they hurt us and they are people after they hurt us. They were needy and weak before they hurt us and they were weak and needy after they hurt us. (Forgive & Forget, San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1996, 27.)

We need to separate sin from sinner. Perpetrators of evil acts are “weak, needy and fallible human beings,” just like us. However, I hate it when people tell me to hate the sin but love the sinner. I hate it because I know the admonishment is true but incredibly difficult. (The irony is that I make the same admonishment in my own teaching and counsel. But I always qualify that I know it is not easy.)

Evil is complex and our response to it must be wise and nuanced. We are not to be defeated by evil but to defeat evil with good (Romans 12:21). Followers of Jesus in Malaysia must continue to pray, to love, to do all within the law to fight for justice and mercy for all communities in our nation. Our ultimate hope is in our Saving King and His coming Kingdom and in His gospel. The journey will be long so we must help each other not to be weary.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6:9-10 TNIV)

In the meantime I am grateful that there was no violent response to the cow head provocation. Indeed many groups, including Muslim groups, spoke up against it. Maybe, just maybe, we are moving forward as a nation. Maybe this year’s national day wasn’t that bad after all. I am still holding my breath/praying.