Religion and Justice in Philomena

Philomena (2013) tells the tragic true story of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) helping a retired Irish nurse named Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) find her lost son. She gave birth to Anthony at Roscrea, a nun-run home for unwed mothers, in 1952 and worked there daily as a laundress. Three years later, Anthony was taken from her in a secret adoption in exchange for a church donation, renamed Michael Hess, and flown to America to live with his new parents.

philomena steve-coogan judi-denchPhilomena never saw her son again. Guilt-ridden and desperate to know his fate, she kept Anthony’s existence secret until 2002, when her daughter Jane meets Martin in London and asks him to help. He and Philomena go first to Roscrea, where they receive no help but learn about an intentional fire that destroyed most records. Then they travel to Washington, DC. After Martin receives immigration records from a friend, he learns Anthony’s new name and finds him online. The shocking discoveries are that Michael, a successful Republican attorney, died in 1995 and that Martin had met him at a White House press conference.

The next step in Martin and Philomena’s journey is meeting people who knew Michael. First they find a colleague who tells them about Michael’s homosexuality, his ex-lover Pete, and his death from AIDS. Then they meet his sister Mary (Mare Winningham), who was also adopted from Roscrea. She tells them about their father’s harshness and the family fight over Michael’s grave. Finally, Martin and Philomena meet Pete in Maryland. From him, they learn that Michael visited Roscrea and was buried in a cemetery there after his death so that his mother would find him.

The final scenes take place at Roscrea. Martin confronts Sister Hildegarde with the truth about Michael, accuses her of lying to a dying man, and demands an apology. He becomes angry after she says that unwed mothers losing their sons was divine punishment for not keeping their chastity vows. Then Martin says, “If Jesus was here right now he’d tip you out of that f*** wheelchair – and you wouldn’t get up and walk.” Philomena, however, tells Sister Hildegard that she forgives her. She later finds Michael’s grave, on which Martin places a plastic Jesus from the gift shop. Then they leave.

Produced and co-written by Steve Coogan, Philomena takes some liberties with the truth. Sister Hildegarde died in 1995. Philomena did not go to America, nor did Martin learn about Michael from the internet. Instead, a nun at Roscrea told Philomena and Jane that he was dead. However, they still needed Martin’s help to find the truth. The events of 1952-1955 are also accurately portrayed in this film. According to Martin’s documentary Ireland’s Lost Children (2014), many homes for unwed mothers in 1950s Ireland forced these women into slave labor as laundresses. Then they kidnapped their children, “selling” them to unvetted parents in an underground baby market. When the truth leaked out decades later, nuns burned thousands of documents. Many adopted children are still seeking their parents.

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” – Genesis 18:25[1]

The real Martin Sixsmith is agnostic, formerly Church of England. Steve is a half-Irish ex-Catholic atheist. He produced much of the film’s vitriol on religion. Both men hate injustice and cheap forgiveness. Ironically, they are closer to God in their pursuit of justice than the nuns and Philomena. Most churches preach, and people like Philomena believe, a false gospel of cheap forgiveness. They ignore God’s justice in their pursuit of grace and mercy. Paradoxically, the Roman Catholic Church also punishes people for immorality while ignoring the truth that if we sin in one area we are guilty of breaking the whole law (James 2:10). Keeping a vow of chastity does not make us holy and righteous if we lie, cheat, steal, murder, or separate mothers from children. Instead, we must humbly repent of all sin.

jesus-christ throne heavenInjured parties and all those who hate injustice need to know that Jesus Christ is in control. He is good, righteous, holy, and just. Jesus sits on a throne in heaven and his reign is eternal. No one put him there and no one can make him leave. God cannot and will not budge. Sadly, the church has ignored God as righteous Judge.[2] He weighs our motives, thoughts, words, and deeds; we reap what we sow.[3] There is no forgiveness without repentance and no mercy without judgment, so only those who repent are justified (Luke 17:3-4, 9-14). Still, God has given us power to forgive or retain another person’s sin (John 20:23). Although Philomena should not have forgiven the unrepentant nuns, it was her prerogative to do so. Going public and choosing to forgive has also given Philomena spiritual lightness (Boston Globe).

God wants justice to “run down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). He created governments (lawmakers, police, courts) to punish evildoers, so religious leaders cannot hide behind the church. It is not a law unto itself. However, governments often fail in their duty. They punish the innocent and let the guilty go free. God hates both (Proverbs 17:15). So when governments fail, he “executes judgment and justice in the earth” (Jeremiah 23:5, KJV). Either in this life or in the next, the guilty will be punished (Exodus 23:7, Proverbs 11:21). Hell is eternal and it is hot.

Still, Martin’s query in this film about good people suffering is flawed. No one is good but God (Matthew 19:17). Everyone else is sinful and depraved, from birth (Psalm 51:1, Jeremiah 17:9). This sinful nature produces evil thoughts, words, and deeds, so innocent people suffer. Yet we have all fallen short of God’s glory and only Jesus can redeem us (Romans 3:22-24). Our religious identity, or lack thereof, is irrelevant. We must confess and repent of our sins, agreeing with God that he alone is holy and just and we are not. Only then will we receive divine forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

jesus-christ lambs-book-of-lifeBecause of sin, this world is filled with injustice and evil. But the Lord has “reserved the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9). Therefore, we wait for the kingdom of God. The millennial reign of Jesus Christ will be just, for the righteous will sit on thrones and reign in judgment (Revelation 20:4-6). They will judge the world, even angels (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). All that sinners can look forward to are the Great Tribulation and Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 6-19, 20:11-15). Because their names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, they will be cast into the lake of fire for all eternity (20:15).

Where do people go when dark, dead churches fail them? What do they do when bad theology produces a flawed view of God? Sadly, too many people become atheists or agnostics. However, God is not Catholic or Protestant. He is God! So we need to be Bible Christians, not system ones. I pray that anyone who has suffered at the hands of a “Christian” leader turns to the Bible and Jesus Christ. He answers hard questions on suffering and injustice. We just need to ask him, for only those who ask will receive (Matthew 7:7-8, James 4:2).

Every high thing must come down
Every stronghold shall be broken
You wear the victor’s crown
You overcome, you overcome
– “Victor’s Crown” (Hillsong)


[1] New King James Version (NKJV), unless otherwise noted
[2] Psalm 50:6, 94:2; Proverbs 29:26, John 9:39, Acts 10:42, 2 Timothy 4:8, Hebrews 12:23, James 5:9
[3] 1 Samuel 2:3, Ecclesiastes 11:9, 12:14; Romans 14:10, Galatians 6:7-8, Hebrews 9:27

One thought on “Religion and Justice in Philomena

  1. Profound thoughts. “Keeping a vow of chastity does not make us holy and righteous if we lie, cheat, steal, murder, or separate mothers from children.” Amen. To behave as if I’m okay, you’re not okay is downright Pharisaical (Luke 18:9-14). “There is no forgiveness without repentance and no mercy without judgment, so only those who repent are justified (Luke 17:3-4, 9-14).” Amen. “Still, God has given us power to forgive or retain another person’s sin (John 20:23).” Delegation of authority. Delightful review.


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