The Exterminating Angel


The Exterminating Angel, also known as Guardian Angel, is a sculpture by Josep Llimona dated in 1895. Built on the ruins of an ancient cemetery which in turn was built on the remains of an old church of the fifteenth century. The Exterminating Angel is the “Angel of the bottomless pit” who reign over locusts that devastate humanity “not marked on the forehead with the seal of God” (Revelation 9:11). (Credit: Andrés Suárez García)

My mother was a gifted psychic who never believed her talent was a big deal. She scoffed at poseurs and charlatans, was highly suspicious of the use of spirituality for profit, and reserved a deep respect for Catholic nuns and Catholic schooling. Never a churchgoing person, she had a profound faith in the power of her plaster image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (a gift from my father to her before their wedding), and an unswerving belief in the principle of Poetic Justice in the world. She never called it karma, but she maintained, to the end of her life, that eventually we all get our just deserts.

I have been thinking a great deal about my mother during this crisis of abduction and hostage taking of immigrant children by the US government. I remember distinctly the day at the Havana airport when we left Cuba in 1961. At the enclosed glass-area that led to the Pan American airplane, my mother and my aunt were taken away by female guards to be body-searched (Castro militias were looking for unauthorized money or jewels leaving the country). To this day, I remember the fear that engulfed me as I was left by myself with my young sister (I was 7, she was 6) in the departure area.

More civilized, more just and more humane than Trump’s Storm Troopers, Castro’s guards returned my mother and my aunt to us, and we left Cuba without further trouble.

I have inherited my mother’s sense of Poetic Justice, and have come to believe that we inevitably reap what we sow. I am reminded that Abraham Lincoln thought that the American Civil War was a horror unleashed by God upon the nation to atone for the practice of slavery: “He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came.”[1]

I am aware that Bernard Shaw considered the devastation wrought by World War I in England to have been caused by the senseless policies of its ruling classes: “Thus were the firstborn of Heartbreak House smitten; and the young, the innocent, the hopeful expiated the folly and worthlessness of their elders.” He considered the tragedy of the war to have been avoidable: “For four years [Nature] smote our firstborn and heaped on us plagues of which Egypt never dreamed. They were all as preventible [sic] as the great Plague of London, and came solely because they had not been prevented. They were not undone by winning the war. The earth is still bursting with the dead bodies of the victors.”[2]

And I have begun to wonder—with the grim anticipation of an islander expecting the arrival of a terrible hurricane—what “mighty scourge” (in Lincoln’s words) will be visited upon us for our abuse of the children of Others? What tragedy will redress the centuries of African-American youths separated from their mothers? What catastrophe will wash away the tears of Native American teens imprisoned in Western schools for their civilization? What will atone for the internment of Japanese-American toddlers in concentration camps?

Throughout our history, the abuse of infants has been “a wise severity, a necessary protection to the commonwealth, a duty of statesmanship.”[3] Yet the prophecy stands—irresistible, unimaginable—against the Egyptian Pharaoh who “hardened his heart, and hearkened not” to the voice of Moses, demanding the liberation of God’s people:

And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle.

And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.

KJV, Exodus 12: 29-30

In the wake of the Exterminating Angel, there is weeping, lamentation, great mourning and no solace. For “suddenly Nature takes her revenge. She strikes … slaughtering right and left until the innocent young have paid for the guilty old, and the account is balanced.”[4]

We would be wise to do as the Hebrew midwives who feared God and did not obey Pharaoh’s order to kill the sons of Hebrew mothers (KJV, Exodus 1:17).



“Death of the Pharaoh’s Firstborn Son” (Ex. 12:29) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1872. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

[1] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” in Andrew Delbanco, The Portable Abraham Lincoln (New York: Penguin Books, 1992);

[2] George Bernard Shaw, “Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall,” in Heartbreak House: Definitive Text (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1974), 16 and 12.

[3] George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra (1898) in Three Plays for Puritans (New York: Penguin Books, 1946),

[4] Shaw, “Heartbreak House…” 11-12.


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