He was the weakest, most helpless human being I ever met, and yet he was one of the most powerful human beings I ever met. I guess you could call him a vegetable. I called him Oliver, my brother. You would have loved him.
With these words, Christopher de Vinck opens up one of the most moving, powerful, enduring books I have ever read—the story of a brother’s love and the power of a helpless human being. De Vinck describes his brother’s physical condition this way:
I grew up in the house where my brother was on his back in his bed for thirty-two years, in the same corner of his room, under the same window, beside the same yellow walls. He was blind, mute. His legs were twisted. He didn’t have the strength to lift his head or the intelligence to learn anything.
Yet, this book is not a melancholy soliloquy on the random cruelty of nature but a testament to the power of those whom society calls “expendable.” In describing the impact his brother had on those around him, de Vinck writes:
He evoked the best love that was in us. He helped us to grow in the virtues of devotion, wisdom, perseverance, kindness, patience, and fidelity. Without doing anything, Oliver made all of us better human beings.
Those are things that the most powerful men in the world will never be able to do. That’s real power! Christopher de Vinck’s book, The Power of the Powerless, was written almost thirty years ago yet is, perhaps, even more timely today than when it was first published. We are living in a culture where euthanasia is now viewed as a constitutional right. Life has gotten cheap. If we don’t like our own life, we think we have the right to throw it away. If we deem another life as without value or inconvenient, we think we have the right to end it.
Over against these views stand the Olivers of the world—the “expendable” who have within them the ability to touch and transform lives in ways unimagined by “enlightened” society. De Vinck writes:
Through this child, I felt bound to Christ crucified—yes, and also to all those who suffer in the world. While caring for Oliver, I also felt that I ministered, in some mysterious way, to all my unknown brothers and sisters who were, and are, grieving and in pain throughout the world. So, through Oliver, I learned the deepest meaning of compassion.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised about the impact Oliver had on those around him. Didn’t I read a similar thought somewhere else? “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are . . .” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).
We’re living in a culture that likes to put a value, a price tag on everything, including human lives. We do cost/benefit analyses and when we decide that the cost of a life (our own or someone else’s) is more than the benefit we accrue from it, we think we have the right to end it. Over against this value system stands the Olivers of the world who take our cost/benefit analyses and turn them upside down. Indeed, that’s what the Kingdom of God is all about. When we encounter Christ—truly encounter Him—our values and priorities are turned upside down. That’s what Paul discovered when he wrote: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . .” (Philippians 3:7-9a).
Oliver died of an infection at the age of thirty-two. He is buried at the Benedictine Monastery in Weston, Vermont. On his tombstone are written the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.”