Is gambling all that wrong?

19.11.2004 | Tracy Gordon | Briefing 033  

 

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Is gambling all that wrong?
Social Issues briefing #033, 19/11/2004.

The safest way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket.  [Kin Hubbard]

A gambler is nothing but a man who makes his living out of hope.  [William Bolitho]

Amongst my fonder memories from childhood are the holidays I spent with my extended family. Instead of braving the Christmas holiday crowds, we preferred the Easter long weekend. We would form a convoy of cars loaded to the brim with aunts, uncles, cousins, friends thereof, tents, board games and food. And we’d generally head south.

Cowra was a favourite destination of ours. And a highlight of our Cowra sojourns was the Pinnacle Guinea Pig Races. The races attract breeders and visitors from all over Australia. I used to marvel at how a younger cousin would blow all of her holiday money betting on a hapless guinea pig, who was so overcome by all the noise and commotion that it invariably turned and ran the other way when the starter gun went off. The rest of my cousins and I would generally cap our betting at $2, and I quickly learnt that the level of a loser’s disappointment is directly proportional to the amount of money being bet.

Some statistics. On average, Australians spend nearly 4 per cent of their annual household income on gambling, three-quarters of which gets fed into poker machines. According to the Australian bureau of Statistics, Australians wager on average about $15.50 a week. Around 82 per cent of Australians gamble and 40 per cent of the population does it at least once a week. As a nation we prefer lotto, pokies or casinos to betting on horses. Last year, total gambling turnover in NSW was $54.9 billion, including $5.2 billion on racing and $49.6 billion on all other forms of gambling. Studies suggest that 1.5 to 2.5 per cent of Australians have severe problems with gambling. (That corresponds to an actual figure, based on a population of 20 million people, of 300,000 to 500,000 people.)

Some commentators have recently pointed to the economic affluence that Australia enjoys—affluence that allows 11.5 per cent of household spending to be directed at gambling, cafes and restaurants (up from 9 per cent 10 years ago). This is a relatively high figure given that spending on essentials—food, clothing, housing and transport—makes up 45 per cent of total spending, the smallest proportion on record.

Bermuda. Earlier this year, the Government of Bermuda decided to legislate to prevent casinos from coming to Bermuda, as well as banning gaming machines there

Why this decision?  ‘We are not convinced that there is strong support for gaming machines, casinos or lotteries in the community,’ said Bermuda’s Attorney General Senator Larry Mussenden. Opponents of this decision replied ‘There are increasing demands that tourists have in terms of destinations and it is questionable whether Bermuda is supplying the product that the modern traveller requires.’

But the Premier of Bermuda, Alex Scott, stated firmly that the Government is standing firm behind its promise to protect Bermuda’s vulnerable from themselves by outlawing all gaming machines on the island. The Premier’s statement gives us a clue that gambling can hold out an irresistible promise to some members of society – particularly weaker members of society.

The logic of gambling. As I reflect on my experience of the guinea pig races, I’ve asked myself the question over and over again—what makes gambling ‘gambling’? Is there an essential difference between betting two bucks on the guinea pig with the golden locks once a year for a bit of harmless fun, and rocking up to the TAB every Saturday morning to place $300 on the dogs? Is there a difference between taking part in the office Melbourne Cup sweep and buying $25 worth of lotto tickets every Tuesday? What about raffle tickets being sold by the local school to raise money for computers? What about investing money in the stock market?

All forms of gambling incorporate a system of redistributing wealth that embodies winners and losers. Money or wealth is willingly taken from one or many and given to another or to a few. There is always at least one loser, and in the case of lotteries or lotto there are many losers. Several questions come to mind at this point. Why would a person want to participate in a system that indiscriminately takes from some and gives to others? Does such a system do good to all those who participate in it? Is it a system that is morally acceptable from a biblical perspective?

The system of indiscriminate redistribution of wealth seems to be at odds with both biblical principles outlined above. The principle of love seems to be at odds with the idea of taking from some, the losers, be they few or many, wealth for which they worked, without any substantial return. The loss appears to devalue the work of the loser. One might argue that the money paid out by the loser bought him or her an opportunity for greater wealth. But this opportunity for greater wealth only comes at a cost to others and with no substantial return for them. Many others give their money and have no return in order for me to win. Love, being the commitment to the good of others, casts doubt on the legitimacy of the enterprise.

It might be argued that losers are paying for a moment of excitement and entertainment, and that excitement and entertainment are legitimate needs in life. But what are the participants excited about and where is the entertainment found? Is it not in the possibility of gaining wealth at a cost to others? And is this possibility of gain not dependent upon a loss for others with no real return? The other-person-centredness of love baulks at this practice. The impetus of this argument is greatly increased by studies that show a large percentage of gamblers are poor—the winners are taking money that many of the losers cannot afford.

When does a game become gambling? Game theorist Roger Caillois says that games are corrupted when the very real boundary of imagination that defines their terrain and structure is violated. Gambling, he says, is always the murder of a game, because gambling violates the God-created playfulness of the game world, and enslaves fun in the straitjacket of money.

We can watch the way reality changes before our eyes when we stop betting for monopoly money (where the game is constrained) and start to bet with real money (because money acts as a conduit between the game world and the real world). This logic might give us some clues as to why a small Melbourne Cup pool seems innocuous (unlike a large one): it remains a game, because when the stakes stay limited to, say, $2, there’s no hope of the stakes rising and $2 is insignificant. So, the conduit to the real world remains quite limited (except in the case of a big office and a big pool), as is the case with some raffles.

Theological ‘instincts’ about gambling. Even so, we are drawn to the concept of getting something for nothing, thinking that somehow we will be able to beat the odds and come out on top. For some, the lure of the promise (which generally goes unfulfilled) becomes all-consuming, such that problem gambling is an emotional problem that has financial consequences.

Christian opponents of gambling are often not very good at explaining their opposition, because they are used to proving right-and-wrong by use of divine commands. But in this case, they cannot point to such a command. Indeed when it comes to ‘casting lots’ (the main deliberate activity of chance in the Bible), we hear of a God who knows how lots fall out [Prov 16:33] and who therefore uses the casting of lots [e.g. Lev. 16:8; 1 Chron. 24:5, 31, 25:8, 26:13, Proverbs 18:18, Luke 1:9, Acts 1:26], although no money is involved in these. On the other hand, elsewhere, the enemies of God’s people also cast lots [see ‘further reading’, below]. So arguments about ‘lots’ can go either way: on the one hand, the Bible seems to leave room for doing it (e.g. to solve a problem); but on the other hand it is almost always the enemies of God who use it for material gain.

So we need to tackle the matter by reference to theology, and the best sense I can make of gambling is that it goes against Christian theological ‘instincts’. Christians know a loving creator whose abundant giving invites thanksgiving and contentment (Jesus persuades us of this in every way he can think of in Luke 12:13-34) whereas pagans obsess about wealth because they don’t know nor trust this God [cf. Luke 16:13]. So Christians detect in the headlong rush to gamble a basic greed, and perhaps beneath that, a sense of despair about survival in what, for non-believers, is a possibly godless universe.

Christians also harbour a basic suspicion that wealth earnt or given makes for a more orderly society than wealth redistributed in random ways, although these ideas are harder to pin down and defend.

These instincts, in addition to the basic requirements of love, leave many of us thinking that we cannot ourselves gamble, because it feels like such a basic betrayal of the Father who cares for us, and as if we might be contributing to the selfish decay of orderly society. We can only ever contemplate light gambling (raffles, Melbourne Cup pools & games) when we seek to participate with people in something fun, not in order to gain; and even then, we worry that our or other’s basic greed circuits will cut in and turn it into something that destroys relationships rather than building them; or we simply worry about what kind of messages our participation will send.

Responding to gambling. Given all these concerns, churches definitely shouldn’t run even light gambling. They may be a case for Christians participating in small raffles as are run by those with whom we live and work, as a way of saying that we care. However, the Christian should also be very free to say, with a gentle smile, ‘no thanks, I don’t gamble—here’s a donation’. If the event is a small, fun office sweep, the Christian should be free to participate if it really is just a game. But if it starts to ‘overheat’, with a bigger pool and with people obviously fretting about the stakes, the Christian might do well to say ‘no thanks—this doesn’t feel like fun to me any more.’

By far the more important concern is the way governments rely upon gambling. The Bermuda government seems to have noticed the way a the State betrays its basic responsibility to its people when it institutes a revenue system which is known to destroy the lives of 1.5-2.5% of its people. (The 300,000-500,000 Australians I mentioned people doesn’t even begin to include the flow on effect to their families and their workplaces.) Rulers exist to do right and wrong for a people on behalf of God. To claim that ‘community goods derived from gambling revenue more than offset community ills arising from gambling addiction’ is not much different from a justification of slavery, where the economic benefits of the many justify the enslavement of the few.

Tracy Gordon
for the Social Issues Executive, Diocese of Sydney

Sources/Further Reading:

Felicity Carus, ‘When do I win? I never win!’, The Guardian, 26 October 2004 online at www.guardian.co.uk/australia/story/0,12070,1335970,00.html

Peter Weekes, ‘Love of a Flutter Grows,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 5 November 2004 online at http://smh.com.au/articles/2004/11/05/1099547387458.html

Matt Wade, ‘Luxury goods sell as wealth rockets,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November 2004 online at http://smh.com.au/articles/2004/11/02/1099362148844.html

Piers Ackerman, ‘Sweeping the floor with Cup wowsers,’ Daily Telegraph, 2 November 2004 online at http://dailytelegraph.news.com.au/story.jsp?sectionid=1292&storyid=2177893

Stephen Breen, ‘AG slams door on casinos,’ The Royal Gazette, 1 July 2004 online at http://www.theroyalgazette.com/apps/pbcs.dll/articale?AID=/20040701/NEWS/107010072

Michael Hill, ‘Should the stewards object? A biblical approach to gambling’, The Briefing, Issue #305, February 2004.  (see www.sydneyanglicans.net/socialissues for a link to Michael’s article)

Tim Costello, ‘Gospel of Greed Lures Punters to Fools Gold,’ SMH 29 November 1997.

‘Casting lots’ in the Bible: Job 6:27, Psalm 22:18, Joel 3:3, Obadiah 11, Mk 15:24 (& parallels).


 

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