In the New Testament, Paul is single-minded about grace. He writes about grace relentlessly, until the word becomes a catchall for pretty much anything that is good and true in the world. Grace is God’s love. Grace is the power through which you are cleansed of sin. Grace is what gives you the will to get through another day, even though every cell in your body is telling you to stay in bed. Grace comes from within. Grace comes from without. It is unknowable and it is instantly recognizable. It carries so much meaning that it seems almost meaningless.
As an atheist, the idea of grace is hard for me to grasp. Sometimes when I witness a true act of selflessness, or when I feel love thrumming from both sides of my skin, I wonder to myself, “is this what Paul meant by grace?” Or as someone who has never believed in God, is the sensation of grace something that I’ll never know? Is it like trying to explain taupe to someone who has never been able to see?
Generally when I read the word “grace,” my subconscious envisions it as a blank space that I fill in with some other word that makes more sense to me: love, acceptance, warmth, understanding. But sometimes I admit to a slight twinge, a sensation that I’ll go to my grave not comprehending a word that seems so important to so many others.
Dr. Willie Parker, the author of Life’s Work, is a religious man, a Christian. He’s an intelligent and spiritual human being who seems entirely comfortable describing his lifelong spiritual journey, and making it clear and attractive to even the most militant of nonbelievers. If communicating one’s faith is a central tenet of Christianity, Parker is a Christian who should make other Christians proud.
Parker also performs abortions. And, yes, he’s aware that this seems like a dichotomy to most:
I had refused to perform abortions out of loyalty to my Christian identity, but I had evolved a great deal since my Christian conversion, and other identities had long since grown up beside it. At forty-one, I was a Christian, yes, but I was also a doctor, a healthcare provider for poor women, and a man who loves women — in partnership, in friendship, at work, and in my family.
In the first few pages of Life’s Work, Parker explains both his conversion to Christianity and his conversion to becoming an abortion provider in states throughout the south. These are not separate narratives; for Parker, providing abortions is an essential part of his Christianity. In fact, “not providing abortions and not living out my convictions would have been a fate worth than death,” he writes. He quotes Elie Wiesel: “Our lives no longer belong to us alone. They belong to those who need us desperately.”
Any non-fiction work about abortions must spend a certain amount of time debunking common lies spread by the anti-abortion crowd, and Parker does a fair amount of that here. He discusses the finer points of fetal development (no, a whole and fully formed human being does not spontaneously appear the second a sperm grazes an egg) and debunks some of the lies about dangers (abortion is an incredibly safe procedure.) These are important points, and Parker communicates them well; even on the page, his competency as a physician is readily apparent.
But thankfully, most of Life’s Work is devoted to Parker’s own story. He writes about the women he helps, and what it’s like working as an abortion provider in a state with draconian laws that require him to lie about the safety of the procedure to his patients. He admits to long-ago moments when he shamed women for making choices about their reproductive health, or, worse, when he shamed them for not being able to control their own reproductive choices. He describes what he sees and what he does when he performs an abortion, and he explains, as best he can, what his patients go through. If you think that sounds ghastly, you’re wrong — and you desperately need to read this book.
In her groundbreaking 2014 book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt correctly identified the anti-abortion position as an anti-woman position. Whether they admit it or not —hell, whether they realize it or not, Pollitt argues — anti-abortion protesters are battling against the agency of women. Without the option of safe and legal abortion, women will never truly be free. The anti-abortion mob will never be satisfied as long as women exercise their own will — not just in the realm of reproductive rights, but in every other aspect of life, too. Reproductive choice is the source from which all other freedoms spring.
Parker builds on Pollitt’s foundations in Life’s Work, and he adds his personal experience to the analogy in a compelling way:
I am not the first person to say or think this, but having returned in my adulthood to make my home in the South, it is impossible not to think constantly about the analogy of the limits on women’s reproductive rights to slavery. As an African American man descended from slaves and raised in the South, it is too easy for me to imagine what it’s like to have no control over your body, your destiny, your life.
Parker and Pollitt have together built a literature that directly shames every mealy-mouthed so-called “liberal” politician who ever allowed any conservative politician to chip away at reproductive rights. To use reproductive rights as a lever to earn votes in election season is to attack individual freedom. This is not, and has never been, “just about sex.” It’s about a moral right, and you have to pick a side.
But Life’s Work is at its best when Parker keeps it personal. And for Parker, the personal is spiritual. He writes about his encounters with “Miss Esther,” an older white woman “who likes to yell at me through the wrought iron fence behind which she stands and advises me that I’m going to hell.” One day, after ignoring her for a very long while, Parker decides to talk to her:
“I don’t think you’re interested in talking with me,” I told her. “I think you’re interested in talking at me.” I told her what I believed, that Scripture does not forbid abortion. She told me I wasn’t reading Scripture right.
”There is no ‘right’ interpretation of Scripture,” I answered. Then Miss Esther said she hoped I didn’t think she was being mean, and she prayed that I would one day start to practice “legitimate” medicine. I thanked her for her time.”
Spirituality should never be a pissing match, but if you were to ask me who won that particular round, I’d say you should always trust the person who allows for ambiguity. Certainty combined with spirituality is a noxious brew. A certain level of trust is necessary for spirituality to exist, but when trust becomes certainty, spirituality mutates into doctrine, and then dogma, and then extremism.
The final chapter of Life’s Work is among the most beautiful pieces of spiritual writing I’ve ever read. Parker lays out his entire worldview, basking in “the vastness of” God, and celebrating God “as a lover of beauty and creativity.” As Parker delves into the ambiguity of what God is and is not, he recasts the idea of what humanity is and is not. As he worships God, he elevates us all.
And finally, the last three pages of the book practically glow with love and humanism and life. As Parker explains his love of medicine as an extension of his love of God, and his love of God as an extension of his love for humanity, you might feel something flutter in your chest. It might be empathy. It could be admiration for the way Parker speaks so plainly and openly and bravely about the most important issues of our time. Or that mysterious feeling might just be something like grace.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant