Off The Record: On Religion, Politics & Equality
Pastor Ron Garner in his Long Island church
It was sunny and 70 degrees when we pulled into the municipal parking lot out back of Wantagh Memorial Congregational Church (WMCC) in Wantagh, Long Island. Spring had arrived in New York; the lawn of the church was already green. Felled tree limbs from a recent storm waited in piles throughout the lawn for collection. Wantagh is a good sized New York City suburb ten minutes north of Jones Beach and largely conservative with its politics.
But Wantagh and Wantagh Memorial made national news last week when Pastor Ron Garner of the WMCC decided to take on conservative FOX News personality, Glenn Beck, by calling him out directly on busy Wantagh Avenue:
What launched the brief media storm and sparked Pastor Garner into action was a public face-off between Glenn Beck and the Reverend Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and long time political activist.
On March 2, Glenn Beck said on his radio talk show:
“I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’…on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. They are code words….social justice is a perversion of the Gospel.”
Wallis, in response posted an open letter, asking Mr. Beck for a sit down:
“I know you are used to a monologue on your show and elsewhere, but let’s have a dialogue—civil, reasonable, respectful, moral, and above all, biblical — to discuss what you have charged.”
Wallis went on to call for a boycott of Beck’s show and Beck lobbed a creepy response to Mr. Wallis, warning him that the “hammer is coming” and announcing he has been gathering “information” on Wallis for months.
Pastor Ron greets us at the back door of his church situated just north of the Long Island Railroad stop. His handshake is firm and his welcome sincerely warm.
We make small talk in the vestibule, me thanking him for his time, telling him I would love to live this close to the beach. Ron takes his Lab puppy – named Jones Bitch – out to the beach run and play fetch as often as he can.
He tells me, laughing, “That’s her name, it’s on her papers!” His smile and laugh is infectious, his welcoming face accentuated by his round tortoise-shell glasses.
Garner leads me down the hall to his office stopping to introduce me to Cheryl, the church secretary. She greets me, and then says to Ron, letter in hand, “Got something for you!” She excitedly gives Ron a letter with a check enclosed — not a large one, but a donation nonetheless. This is one of a handful that have come in as a result of Ron’s sign. He seems pleased. His message that Beck is terribly mistaken in his understanding of Jesus and social justice is finally getting out.
“Response [to the sign] has been mostly positive,” says Garner. WMCC’s weekly newsletter puts the percentages like this: 80% positive, 10% negative and 10% undecided.
Pastor Garner chalks up Beck’s ravings to fear.
Garner and his wife lived in England, working at a church in Bath for about 8 years. “We weren’t in the US for 9-11 and when we came back, we had no idea how fearful a society we had become.” We were afraid of a car back firing, politicians railed against the “other,” we willingly gave up a host of civil liberties with the sweeping language of the Patriot Act. Our rightful post 9-11 fear had given way to a dangerous paranoia. Garner’s observation of a post 9-11America is simple and salient when analyzing Glenn Beck’s – and other pundits – fear mongering.
But Garner doesn’t stop there. He calls out almost all religions for their history of fear making as flock management and uses his own experience as an explanation of his view.
Ron grew up in a Fundamentalist home in Indiana. He struggled with the harsh faith of his born-again Christian parents. He says the God he was raised with was something to fear: fire, brimstone and the lot. Ron calls this bad religion. An even finer point has been put on Ron’s bad religion theory through his mother, aging and gripped with dementia.
“My mom is tortured by the demons of bad religion. I talk to her on the phone, she believes there are men in her room, trying to take her to hell. She tells me she prays to Jesus to not let her go to hell,” he says.
This, according to Ron is the product of his mother’s “bad religion” and proof to him how it can damage people, sometimes forever. He admits much of his mother’s claims can be credited to the dementia, but, Ron points out, “Those thoughts, ideas, they had to come from somewhere.”
For Ron, social justice as his Jesus intended it, is nothing to fear but something to be embraced spiritually and politically. “Beckian theology regarding social justice is easy and accessible to people,” Ron tells me, “it is the true application of Biblical social justice that takes time, research and discussion to understand.”
So what is social justice to Pastor Garner? If it isn’t as Beck claims “code” for Nazism cause for unbridled fear and signal to run like a scalded dog from your local church — then what is it?
Ron uses the Bible, and his gut to guide him, “Matthew 25, talks about who are the poorest, who is not welcomed and who is it that makes up the least of these?” Jesus was an outsider, Garner tells me, he was one with the peasantry, the oppressed, walking the Earth as the “other”. He was a radical that empowered the people to speak up and push back against their oppressors, to seek true justice. According to Garner, Micah (6:8) wasn’t just talking to individuals when he challenged Israel with these words:
“God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Pastor Garner was quick to point out, Glenn Beck does not subscribe, at least publicly, to any of these divine imperatives.
What will come of his statements about Glenn Beck? The response may be no more than people like me showing up at his church’s back door looking for a conversation. And that’s all right by Ron, because in his view, a real conversation – not one led by television ideologues – about a loving and just God in our civil society is long overdue.
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