“Infinite goodness has such wide arms.” (Dante)
Steve Earle is best known as a rocker turned folk musician, but he has written an amazing novel, I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive. You would think that it would be easy to identify right from wrong in a story set in the red-light district, deep in the heart of Texas. Yet Earle confounds our expectations with the mixed motives of his characters. There is Manny, the dope dealer, who nevertheless has a soft spot in his heart; Doc, a physician who heals victims of gunshot wounds for heroin money; Marge, the racist motel owner who will shelter whores from their abusive pimps. Through these complexities, Earle blurs the line between good and evil.
And then there is Graciela.
She is a Mexican teenager who crosses into San Antonio illegally and gets pregnant. Her abusive lover pays for her abortion at the hands of the aforementioned Doc, an unlicensed and drug-addicted physician. (By the way, this Doc is also haunted by the legendary country music singer, Hank Williams.) Far away from home, Graciela decides to stay with this accursed doctor. In fact, she becomes his assistant; she hands him the medical equipment he needs while performing operations. She also lights incense, spreads holy water, and, above all, prays. She prays Roman Catholic prayers in Spanish and the prayers taught to her by her grandfather, a medicine man back in Mexico. Whatever language she uses, her results are undeniable. Her reputation quickly grows in the red-light district as a miracle worker. Through her prayers and vigils during Doc’s procedures, patients are cured from all manner of violent and ghastly injuries. Even Doc knows that it is Graciela who heals them by some unknown power.
We read the healing miracles of Jesus recorded in the Gospels time and time again. Do we still believe that God works through certain people to bring about healing? Recently in our congregation, there was a man cured of bladder cancer. His doctors injected live tuberculosis cells into his body three times a week for a month and a half. At last check, the cancer was completely gone. Now, I would call that a miracle. Graciela, however, does not use modern science. Her instruments are rosary beads, not pharmaceuticals. What do we think about that?
And do we believe that an illegal immigrant teenager, who had an abortion, can heal in the name of God?
I realize that some Christians are more likely to affirm miraculous interventions. Yet often these very same people are quick to denounce abortion as a heinous, if not unforgivable, sin. The priest in I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive fits this stereotype perfectly. Father Killen is horrified that Graciela is performing miracles with “an abortionist” and is willing to kill Doc. What do we think about that? Can anyone who willfully commits violence against another human claim to be pro-life?
Earle’s genius is that he allows such questions to hang in our conscience like the heat in the Texas air. I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive tackles the reality of abortion, not as a political stance, but a heart-wrenching reality among those whom Jesus called the least of our brothers and sisters. What is right? What is wrong? Ultimately, the reader is left to decide whether or not the morality of choice is as clear cut as some would lead us to believe.
But I leave you to think about this: twentieth century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, once observed that love without power remains impotent, and power without love is bankrupt. It seems to me that love and power come together in the act of healing, and that such healing promotes life. And that is worth believing in and claiming without question.