Keeping the Faith

Philomena: a Story of Freedom Through Forgiveness

A cricket bat is not an inherently evil object.  You might argue otherwise when it is wielded by a 6-foot-something lunkhead with murderous intent.  Nor is a cricket bat an inherently holy object.  Again, some might have argued otherwise when it was in the hands of cricketing legends like our beloved Ricky Ponting or the great Sir Donald Bradman.

Cricket bats are designed, crafted and sold for what is considered a good purpose; sport and enjoyment.  But it’s the intent in the mind of the man or woman holding the bat that determines whether that purpose is realised.

Religion is a lot like a cricket bat.

images-2There is no more powerful illustration of this than in the film Philomena.  Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (based on the 2009 investigative book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith), the film traverses a familiar true story of forced adoption in Ireland.  Finding herself pregnant out of wedlock, teenager Philomena Lee is deposited at an Irish-Catholic convent where nuns shamed and manipulated young women into relinquishing their babies for adoption to rich Americans for the princely sum of 1000 pounds.

Fifty years on, Philomena is still searching and hoping that she might be reunited with her son when she meets journalist Martin Sixsmith and asks for his help.  I’m no spoiler – I won’t give away the ending…

Philomena is portrayed as a slightly dotty old woman with a simplistic faith.  She harbours no bitterness or hate for the sisters complicit in her heartache.  She has somehow managed to keep her heart soft and full of forgiveness.

Sister Hildegard McNulty, the villainous nun held accountable for the injustices against thousands of young women like Philomena – and perhaps therefore scapegoat for the broader practice of forced adoption – is portrayed as a sad, twisted woman unable to face the repercussions of her actions.  She is hard and bound up by her past.

Two women professing a faith in God, but with wildly differing results.  One wielded her faith to manipulate, shame, abuse and corrupt.  The other wielded her faith to live, love, forgive and bring justice.

How can the same ‘bat’ score a six by one hand and maim by another?

Religion is many things, good and bad. Interpretations of the Bible are sadly often skewed for personal gain – because we are inherently selfish.  The human condition.

God, however, is unchanging.  God is love.  God forgives.

I love this verse in Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

Hint: religion is the slavery bit, God is the freedom bit.

The Hildegards out there are slaves to religion while the Philomenas demonstrate the ability to embrace God’s freedom – as He desires.  He doesn’t want us chained to rules and embittered by circumstance.

By the world’s standards, Philomena had every right to inflict hate and punishment on her tormentors, the nuns.  Her actions in forgiving even the worst among them demonstrated a deep faith and understanding of God.

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” John 8:32 says.

First published in The Examiner Newspaper for Keeping the Faith column on Monday February 17, 2014.

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1 Comment

  1. John Wigg says

    The “Magdalen houses” perpetuated a stereotype of Mary Magdalene which was rehashed in Jesus Christ Superstar. More recently there’s been a move amongst the Roman Catholic communion to present a more biblically accurate account of the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

    Today’s article reminds me a bit of Joseph, who told his forgiven brothers, “You intended harm to me, but God intended it for good…to accomplish the saving of many lives.”

    Forced adoptions of illegitimate children weren’t good. Nor is the “clinical solution” that has partly replaced the old Magdalen convents: Eliminating a very human “problem” under the guise of “reproductive health” only replaces one tragedy with a greater one in too many cases.

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