Small, Consistent Acts of Goodness
The story of the Exodus starts with a new king in Egypt. This king, it’s said, didn’t know Joseph—which either meant somehow the savior of Egypt’s legacy had been forgotten with time, or this new king knew exactly the legacy Joseph had, and he wanted nothing more than to make his subjects forget it. Either way, the line that introduces him is a chilling one because when we forget our history, bad things happen.
And boy were they bad. This king, it seems, felt this overwhelming urge to rally his country against the Hebrews, to eradicate any foreign influence, and to gather power to himself by forcing his subjects to fall into an “us versus them” pattern with these people. So he stoked fear: “these Hebrews will soon outnumber us, and they will side with an enemy should war come!” And then he followed the steps toward greater and greater evil.
First, by robbing the Hebrews of their freedom, forcing them to act as slaves for the Egyptians. Then he moved on to try discretely culling their population by ordering the midwives to kill the baby boys. And finally, he moved directly to getting the whole Egyptian population to be complicit in genocide by ordering them to throw all the baby boys into the river.
This was evil on a colossal scale—no ruler in the Bible was more actively evil than Pharaoh. We see that kind of evil and the only frame of reference we have for it is these monsters of history like Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Pinochet. Diabolical tyrants who wield their power to destroy innocent people. These people commit acts of evil that we can’t even fathom how to respond. And the only way we can imagine how to overcome that kind of evil is to wield more power than they do.
So we call on the cavalry. Meet force with force. Overwhelm evil with enough firepower and it will be defeated. It’s worked for every great evil from Nazis to ISIS. It’s the only way.
When they were ordered to kill all the baby boys born to the Hebrews, Shiphrah and Puah the midwives chose not to. They heard the command of the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, the most powerful man on earth, and they defied him. And not just once; they kept doing it. They kept conveniently not getting there in time to kill the baby boys. And when the king demanded to know why, they lied to him. “Hebrew women are just too vigorous,” they lied. Small, consistent acts of goodness were what undermined Pharaoh’s great evil.
And when Pharaoh ordered all the Hebrew boys be thrown into the river, his own daughter thought she’d rather not. She found Moses hidden in the bulrushes, and she knew--she knew—that this was a Hebrew child. She knew exactly what her father’s command was. She knew, and she disregarded it. She defied him. Small, consistent acts of goodness were what undermined Pharaoh’s great evil.
When the Soviet Union occupied the nation of Lithuania, the Japanese vice-consul Sugihara Chiune wrote travel visas for more than 6,000 Jews so that they could escape. He continued writing them up to the day the consulate closed in 1940. The next year, Nazi Germany would invade, and those 6,000 people escaped the Holocaust because of Sugihara’s small, consistent acts of goodness by writing visas.
The late congressman John Lewis and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee did such defiant acts as sit at whites-only lunch counters, walk across the Edmund Pettis Bridge to stand up for voting rights, and rode on integrated buses through the Deep South to protest racism and Jim Crow. Their actions brought national attention—and pressure—to right this longstanding wrong. But in the end, again, it was the small, consistent acts of goodness that undermined the evil of segregation.
It wasn’t the big, flashy acts of people’s heroism that brought Pharaoh’s evil down and thwarted his plans. It was the small, consistent acts of goodness, bent on undermining the power of evil and bringing about the triumph of good, that did it. It was the quiet defiance of the midwives. It was the simple undermining of Pharaoh’s daughter. It was the everyday decisions of ordinary people who chose to do the right thing. That’s how God chose to act in Egypt. That’s how God chooses to make the world right today.
Because sometimes the evil of the world can feel overwhelming. It can feel like there are so many things that we need to confront, their causes so tangled up, their solutions so complicated, that we don’t even know where to start. We can easily get the feeling that if we can’t affect huge change right now, then nothing can be done. We can’t turn the tide of history on our own, so truly making the world a better place and building the kingdom of God can feel impossible.
But it really is as simple as doing goodness in small ways, consistently. It’s as simple as listening to our neighbor when they’re upset, rather than just reacting. It’s as simple as choosing to be patient with the new cashier, even if our day has been hectic. It’s as simple as pointing out when a friend tells a racist or sexist joke, or biting our tongue when we want to be cruel, or choosing to see someone for who they are, and not for who we’re told they are.
And then doing that consistently.
The Grand Canyon is six thousand feet deep and 277 miles long. Every single inch of it was carved, little by little, by moving water, and nothing else. Moving water that moved consistently over rock and, over time, eroded it away. Small acts of goodness are like water flowing over rock. With enough time, with enough consistency, they can erode evil away to nothing. The acts of an individual making small, consistent acts of goodness in the world may take time to erode that evil—but Shiphrah and Puah were just two, right?
You are sixty, seventy, a hundred people called to make small, consistent acts of goodness. You are called to be like Shiphrah and Puah, like Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter—be brave in the face of evil. Be consistent in the face of evil. Use the small acts you can do to defy evil, to undermine its foundations, to erode it down to nothing. The evil in the world looks daunting—impossible to overcome, even—but like the midwives knew and Pharaoh didn’t, God is on the side of right. And God infuses our small, consistent acts of goodness with power that will reshape the world and make the kingdom known.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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