"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Republican officeholders are bending all their efforts… to ban abortion. In the last few weeks and months, we’ve seen a blizzard of anti-choice legislation in Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and many other places. These laws stall women seeking abortions with mandatory waiting periods, brutalize them with invasive and unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds, force doctors to read shaming scripts rife with falsehoods, and impose onerous regulatory requirements that are designed to be impossible to comply with so that family-planning clinics will be forced to close. At the federal level, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted for a bill banning all abortion after 20 weeks, without even putting up a pretense that this was constitutional.
One would think the drubbing taken by anti-choice zealots like Todd Akin in the last election would have given Republicans an incentive to step back and consider whether this is a winning strategy. Instead, it seems as if their losses have only inspired them to fight harder. For the right-wing Christian fundamentalists who dominate the Republican Party, banning abortion, or at least piling up pointless regulations to make it as burdensome and difficult to obtain as possible, has become an all-consuming obsession, akin to a religious crusade.
Given the amount of effort and political capital the religious right puts into trying to restrict abortion, you’d guess that opposition to women’s choice must take up a huge portion of the Bible. But the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth.
The Bible says nothing whatsoever about abortion. It never mentions the subject, not once, neither in the Old Testament nor the New. This isn’t because abortion was unknown in the ancient world. Much to the contrary, the ancient Greeks and Romans were well-acquainted with the idea. Surviving writings from these cultures recommend the use of herbs like pennyroyal, silphium and hellebore to induce abortion; others advise vigorous physical activity to cause a miscarriage, and some even discuss surgical methods.
It’s impossible to imagine that no Jewish or Christian woman in the ancient world ever had to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. Thus, it’s reasonable to conclude that the Bible’s authors never mention abortion because they weren’t especially concerned about it. This often forces modern Christian anti-choicers to resort to laughable rationalizations like, “It was so unthinkable that an Israelite woman should desire an abortion that there was no need to mention this offense in the criminal code.” (This, in a book whose authors thought it worthwhile to set down the punishment for having a threesome with your wife and mother-in-law.)
There are later Christian writings that explicitly mention and forbid abortion, such as the Didache. But none of these documents made it into the canon of the Bible, which must be frustrating for modern anti-choicers who’d love to have a “clobber verse” they can throw at women seeking to exercise control over their own bodies.
Instead, religious-right activists are forced to engage in creative reinterpretation of vague biblical passages, trying to wring out something they can use to “prove” God is in favor of mandatory childbearing. One of the common ones is Jeremiah 1:4-5, which they claim as a divine endorsement of fetal personhood:
The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
The most obvious problem with this, besides the fact that it says nothing specific about abortion, is that it’s not a general statement about all of humanity; it’s a special predestination intended only for the prophet Jeremiah. What’s more, from an anti-choice standpoint, it says too much: it says that God knew Jeremiah not just while he was in the womb, but before forming him in the womb. Perhaps the pro-life slogan should be, “Life begins before conception”?
Another that’s often cited is Psalms 139:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb… My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
This is a truism in the Judeo-Christian worldview, since in that belief system, by definition, God creates everything. A verse saying that he created one particular thing, therefore, doesn’t establish the moral status of that thing. Presumably, in the same poetic sense that this passage puts it, it’s equally true from a biblical standpoint that God “creates the inmost being” of other animals and “knits them together” in the womb, but Christians have never considered that an argument for veganism.
This handful of vague verses constitutes the sum total of the anti-choice arsenal, even in the most searchingly creative scheme of interpretation. On the other hand, there are numerous Bible verses which clearly point in the opposite direction. These passages state explicitly that the men who wrote the Bible didn’t conceive of an unborn fetus as equivalent to an adult human being. Let’s look at some of them:
Judah and Tamar
In the Book of Genesis, chapter 38, the Israelite patriarch Judah marries off his firstborn son Er to a woman named Tamar. But Er “was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him” (38:7). After several unsuccessful attempts to find Tamar a new husband, Judah orders his daughter-in-law to put on widow’s garb and wait at her father’s house until his son Shelah is grown up and can marry her (it being the law in ancient Israel that a man should impregnate his dead brother’s wife to carry on the family line).
But Tamar gets fed up with waiting, takes off her widow’s garb and disguises her face with a veil, and goes out to sit on the roadside. Judah finds her, mistakes her for a prostitute, and agrees to pay her one goat in exchange for sex. (I’m not making this up.) Later on he finds out she’s pregnant, and not realizing that he’s the one responsible, he orders her to be put to death:
About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.”
Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”
Tamar ultimately escapes her fate by proving Judah’s hypocrisy, so the issue is never forced. But it’s clear that he had every intention of having her executed on the spot, even though she was pregnant at the time. No mention is made of waiting for her to give birth.
Fights Causing a Miscarriage
The biblical verse that comes closest to an explicit mention of abortion is in Exodus chapter 21:
“When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (RSV translation)
Consistent with the other verses cited here, this passage decrees eye-for-an-eye retribution in the case of harm to an adult human being, but if a man injures a woman and causes her to miscarry, he only pays a fine.
The most common Christian-right apologetic is that this verse in the original Hebrew refers to the woman giving birth prematurely, not miscarrying. But how plausible is this? Even if it were medically realistic that a punch or a kick could induce labor in a pregnant woman without causing any injury to the fetus, is it at all likely that a premature infant would survive in an ancient society with no notion of modern medicine? The situation that today’s apologists invite us to imagine is improbable in the extreme.
If an unborn fetus possesses the moral status of personhood, then a pregnant woman should be counted as two people in the census. That seems like an obvious conclusion to draw. But the authors of the Bible didn’t think so. In chapter 5 of the Book of Numbers, God commands Moses to take a census of the Israelites:
The Lord said to Moses in the Desert of Sinai, “Count the Levites by their families and clans. Count every male a month old or more.” So Moses counted them, as he was commanded by the word of the Lord.
Not only does God not instruct Moses to count pregnant women twice, he doesn’t even want children less than a month old to be counted! This may well have been a harsh necessity in an ancient society that couldn’t afford to get too attached to its newborns until it was likely that they were going to survive, but it hardly fits with the modern “pro-life” view. Unlike his politically inclined modern-day followers, God doesn’t even consider personhood to begin at birth, let alone at conception. (Leviticus 27:6-7 teaches the same message, setting out the monetary value of human lives: it places no value on children of either sex less than a month old, and no extra value on pregnant women.)
The Law of Jealousy
One of the strangest laws of the Old Testament comes from the Book of Numbers, chapter 5. This commandment, which God personally speaks to Moses, prescribes that if a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful, even if he has no witnesses or any other proof, he may bring her to the priests to undergo a bizarre trial by ordeal:
“The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water… The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her.
…If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.”
In other words, this potion of “bitter water” will have no effect if the woman has been faithful, but if she’s cheated on her husband and gotten pregnant, it will rot her body and cause her to have a miscarriage. Whether or not you believe in this sort of black magic, the people who wrote it clearly did, and that tells us something about their worldview.
Today’s religious-right lawmakers resist putting rape exceptions in their abortion bans, arguing that it’s not a fetus’ fault how it was conceived, but the authors of the Bible had no such qualms. They created laws which decreed that not just rape, but mere consensual infidelity is sufficient reason to force a woman to consume an abortifacient—or, as in Tamar’s case, to be put to death while pregnant.
This, of course, is part and parcel of the ancient tribal mindset which taught that a man’s wife and children were his possessions to use and dispose of as he saw fit. Under that belief system, if you were the patriarch, another man impregnating your wife would be like an act of theft, and you’d have the right to take back your “property” — her womb — from the trespasser. If the woman willingly participated, you might even have the right to kill her, the same way you’d dispose of any other damaged or defective goods — as in the story of Judah and Tamar, or the horrifying biblical verse which says that a rape victim may be stoned to death if she doesn’t scream loudly enough (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).
And there’s the evil irony of the situation: even though the Bible says nothing about abortion, it’s very definite in its teaching that women are inferior and should be the possessions of men, and that’s the worldview that the modern religious right is trying to bring back. In their ceaseless efforts to ban abortion even in cases of rape or when the woman’s life is in danger, in their cynical attempts to shut down clinics that are often the only source of essential reproductive health care for poor, at-risk and underserved populations, they’re broadcasting loud and clear that the health and well-being of women is of no concern to them. So long as they fulfill their role of mandatory child-bearing, the culture warriors of the religious right couldn’t care less about what happens to those women or to their children afterwards.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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