The Political Church: An Approach to the Problem, Part 3

Church StateAnother example: gambling

The church has traditionally opposed gambling, although the scriptures say nothing against gambling at all. The traditional arguments are —

* Gambling can be addictive (true, but not for most)

* Gambling is an effort to make money without labor (the same argument was made against banking in the 18th and early 19th Century)

* Gambling breeds crime (certainly true in Las Vegas, but is it always true? Does the lottery breed crime?)

Here’s a different argument from Will Willimon, a Methodist bishop and co-author of Resident Aliens, which is an argument you won’t find in the pages of most conservative church bulletins —

Some time ago we observed the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma. That celebration was overshadowed by the arrival in Montgomery of the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. They came not to push for greater racial justice in Alabama (which we badly need) but rather to push for a constitutional amendment that would legalize casinos (which we don’t).

The only good sense gambling makes in Alabama is business sense. We have one of the worst educational systems in the country and one of the highest poverty rates. Studies show that a hugely disproportionate share of the poor and poorly educated are customers of the casinos and bingo parlors that the bill would permit. The Reverends Jackson and Sharpton say their concern is jobs for casino workers in some of the state’s poorest counties.

But does economic salvation through gambling make any sense from the viewpoint of the faith of two clergymen?

Willimon makes several arguments, but the fundamental argument is that it makes no sense to create jobs for the poor by inducing the poor to foolishly spend their money on slot machines.

You see, it’s one thing for the wealthy to find entertainment by spending what they can afford on slot machines, but it’s quite another to sucker the poor into betting on bad odds in order to create tax revenues and jobs. There’s no wealth created in gambling, and while this is no sin in itself, it does mean that there can be no net gain in wealth — whatever wealth is obtained results from someone else’s loss of wealth. And the high taxes levied on the proceeds means that the net wealth of the poor goes down.

A farmer, a miner, a home builder, a manufacturer, and many others create wealth where none was before. Others, such as bankers, don’t so much create wealth as enable others to do so. Slot machines and lotteries, when used by the well-to-do, provide entertainment and relaxation. But when the poor gamble in a desperate effort to improve their lives, they make a foolish investment at the government’s behest. Then, the slot machines merely re-distribute wealth, taking it from the poor and giving it to the wealthy and the government.

In a sense, it’s a voluntary tax, as no one has to gamble, but the fact that most of those betting on the slot machines are poor shows that it’s simply the government using businesses to dupe the poor into a bad deal. And that’s wrong, and the church should stand against it.

I have no problem with gambling targeted to those who can afford it. But slot machines in the poorest parts of town are simply a clever way for the government to take from the very people it should be protecting.

And so, yes, it’s something the church — as an institution — should oppose in line with the traditions of the Old Testament prophets and the values found in the Torah — but only if the church does so in the name of the poor. It would be a mistake to oppose gambling on moral grounds, as though it would be a sin for a wealthy person to lose $20 playing the slots. It’s not. Rather, the argument must be in the name of the poor — or not at all.

Example: Sunday liquor sales

In February 2011, my home city will vote on whether to allow Sunday liquor sales. Alabama is a wet-dry state, meaning that each county and city can vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic drinks. But state law prohibits sales on Sunday, whether in a grocery store, a bar, or a restaurant. But the rest of the week, alcohol sales are allowed to those 21 or older. No sales are allowed to those visibly drunk. Open containers are not allowed outdoors on public property. Drunk driving laws are strictly enforced.

Now, the scriptures plainly do not make drinking a sin. Indeed, the consumption of “strong drink” in the presence of God at the tabernacle was part of the fellowship meal before God (Deu 14:26). The scriptures are filled with warnings against the abuse of alcohol — against addiction, against drunkenness — but the consumption of alcohol is not frowned on.

In Numbers 15, wine is a required offering to God, and obviously has to be made to be offered. And wine is considered a gift from God to man —

(Psa 104:14-15 ESV)  You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth 15 and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.

(Pro 3:9-10 ESV) 9 Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; 10 then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.

(Jer 31:11-13 ESV) 11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. 13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

And so the argument that alcohol is necessarily sinful and so we must oppose Sunday liquor sales does not hold. And most outside the church know that the Bible doesn’t condemn all alcoholic drink, with the result that the church’s condemnation of alcoholic would make us look like moralizing legalists — people who impose rules on others for their own sake, not for the sake of others.

Moreover, the fact that God permits wine and strong drink in the tabernacle as people celebrate their harvest with God certainly argues against the “Christian Sabbath” notion that we shouldn’t drink on Sundays. It’s just not so. Indeed, the early church shared the love feast on Sundays, and they certainly drank wine as a part of it (but taking care not to become drunk).

This leaves us with prudential arguments: is it good to have alcohol for sale to students who must go to class on Monday? do we want to encourage even more time spent in bars? … those sorts of arguments. And there may well be good, policy reasons for opposing Sunday liquor sales or for limiting them in some way.

The danger here is the church reflexively taking a position for traditional reasons that aren’t founded in the Bible and that unnecessarily separate the church from the lost — as though we’ve been saved to redeem people from the evils of social drinking. This is precisely what I was taught growing up, and it caused me to lose respect for my teachers, since I’d read my Bible and found no such teaching.

Are we teaching the Bible or a fondly remembered past? Are we adding commands to the scriptures that God did not — a form of will worship? You see, the easy, traditional answer is not quite so easy.

Therefore, while I’m open to persuasion, I don’t see a biblical basis for us to oppose Sunday liquor sales, and so I don’t see how it’s the church’s business. How can we oppose this in the name of Jesus when Jesus made wine and God approved the consumption of wine and strong drink in his presence at the Tabernacle?

Now, if the members see good policy reasons to vote no, other than to impose God’s will on the lost (it’s not his will), that’s fine. They don’t have to support it. We just can’t oppose it in the name of Jesus.


33 Responses

  1. There’s no wealth created in gambling, and while this is no sin in itself, it does mean that there can be no net gain in wealth — whatever wealth is obtained results from someone else’s loss of wealth.

    That’s a dubious argument. Is wealth created by entertainment? It depends on what you count as wealth. For many people who gamble, it is a form of
    entertainment. And gambling does create jobs — those casinos don’t run themselves.

    In a sense, it’s a voluntary tax, as no one has to gamble, but the fact that most of those betting on the slot machines are poor shows that it’s simply the government using businesses to dupe the poor into a bad deal. And that’s wrong, and the church should stand against it.

    That’s the real key. When we cause someone to stumble, we are not acting out of love. See 1 Cor 8. Also,

    Rom 14:21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.

  2. Good morning Jay,

    I have been saying for some time that gambling robs from the poor and gives to the rich.

  3. John, doesn’t most economic activity favor the rich?
    Real wealth comes from God. Crops multiply 60 to a hundred fold. That’s not redistributed gain but real gain from God.
    One of the causes of financial errosion, like current America, is concentration on trading pieces of the pie. Gain comes from a bigger pie not moving the slices arround.
    To balance this, its useful to have active markets, grocery, retail goods, and even Wall Street. But someone better be making things for the markets, food, manufactured items, and new companies with new stock or the trading runs dry.

  4. Jay, do you realize that lawyers are like casinos adding no real gain? To be really moral, go plow!
    Years ago when Florida began its lottery, we got a sermon on the evils of gambling. That afternoon, many of us ate with the preacher, and the question was raised; what would we do if a lottery ticket showed up in the collection plate? Should we immediately destroy it or check to see if it was a winner? Even if it had value, should we show support of gambling by cashing it in? Glad you cleared this up.

  5. My brother-in-law once said to me: “The lottery is a tax on the poor.” I’ve thought a lot about that and observed a lot since then. I think he’s right.

    In the same way, your arguments about gambling make sense.

    I found out by experience that our city doesn’t allow the sale of liquor before noon on Sunday. Not sure what that’s about. Hope churches that use wine in the Lord’s Supper don’t ever run short on Sunday morning!

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  6. “The lottery is a tax on the poor.”
    I have never seen how that is true, as I see it the lottery is a temptation for the greedy.

  7. Does the bible teach, gambling, taking a chance, is a sin? What does it say about the man who trusted his servants with his money (that was a gamble right there) two of the three made a profit by taking a chance, gambling. One did not, who was punished?

  8. Laymond,

    By your definition, all life is a gamble because there is risk. Getting out of bed to drive to work is quite a different proposition to playing a slot machine.

    I agree with Tim that the lottery is a tax on the poor. It is designed to gain funds for the government. Yes, it is a voluntary tax – but it is regressive because it does not tax according to income or ability to pay.

    You are right in that it is, too often, a temptation for the greedy. Yet, the temptation to gamble away more than you can afford to lose is more likely to hurt the poor than the well-to-do. There are enough temptations for foolish ways to use your money without government adding to them with lotteries and large casinos.

    Several years ago, Detroit wanted to establish casinos. The governor had a commission study the issue. Their report said the major problems in Detroit were poverty, broken families, addictive behavior, and crime. They said gambling would likely add to all of these – but recommended the governor approve the proposals for casino gambling – because of the revenues that would accrue to the state, county, and city governments.

    That is cynical and a sad example of governmental greed only inspiring more private misery.

    Jay’s article, I believe is spot on, about gambling anyway.


  9. Tim, we are warned by Jesus to be prepared, bringing enough oil to wait for the bridegroom.
    Laymond, perhaps our congregation should buy a lottery ticket every week!

  10. i’m glad you cleared both of these up in one post. because i have no idea what i’d do if i was ever asked to buy a lottery ticket without a glass of wine in my hand, or to drink beer without first betting on how many i could down.

  11. I don’t have a problem with gambling as long as it is looked at as a form of entertainment that costs x amount of money to enjoy, and that amount is within your budget. I have always argued that if you put your hard earned money in the stock maket you are no different than someone who puts their hard earned money in a slot machine. Both are putting their money ‘at risk’ and both are trying to make a profit without ‘working’ for it. Not to mention few have become rich and many have become poor due to the stock market. If its done in a casino it is called gambling, but if it is done in a stock market it is called investing, yet both are risky ways to make money without working for it. At least thats the way I see it. What do you guys think?

  12. I am not active in the market for several years, but was, and will be again. Let me assure you that I worked hard for every buy, and monitored a lot for every sale.
    I spent almost 100 hours in the library working on my first buy, and made $1,000 on sale. Ten dollars an hour was good. Anyway the difference is you can make an educated guess in the market, but not a slot machine. I guess some poker pros can do that with their game and competitors.
    Jason, I fully agree with your entertainment $ limits. A movie can be an expensive gamble (tickets, snacks) lessened by reading reviews. With stock, I can do far more: analyze financials, company history, products, competitors, product market, and more. Maybe the 5 talent guy worked hard for his gain..

  13. Jason–

    I wouldn’t say you are “making money without working for it” by investing. It takes thought, strategy, etc…plus, you are essentially becoming a part-owner in the business (shareholder). You can vote, etc. on different matters if you choose.

    For me, I agree that a scriptural argument cannot be made against drinking or gambling. But I must consult Romans 14 to decide if it is something that is actually fruitful for me to do. What would go through you guys’ mind if you were eating at Pizza Hut and having a pitcher of beer and a new family from church came by? I don’t think there is any way for that to be a positive experience.

    Which really frustrates me, because I am fairly high-strung and I’d do well with a few glasses of wine or a six-pack every now and then.

  14. My frustration with the lottery is two or three times when the church has helped people with money because they were down on their luck we found them in the convenience store buying their lottery tickets!

  15. Larry said, “Laymond, perhaps our congregation should buy a lottery ticket every week!”

    Larry if you won 300 million, and used it all for good projects, would that be a sin.?
    If you were to take a buck from the kitchen coffee money, to buy that ticket, would that be a sin?

  16. I guess the sin is in losing. The ticket must be bought with great faith!

  17. What’s really funny is those who rail against gambling as a sin (i.e casino gambling or the lottery) while playing the stock market. talk abotu a gamble. and i’ve never understood how could anyone be so boneheaded as to declare anything a tax on the poor other than actual taxes? the irs is not forcing you to buy lottery ticket. the collection plate is more a tax on the poor than the lottery since preachers act like the irs in exacting it. nobody is doing this with the lottery. nobody will preach me a sermon for not buying a ticket or try to strong arm me with guilt trip.

  18. and as to the drinking, the poor will buy a lottery ticket or booze one or the other and i prefer the lottery ticket. at least that will not make them out of their head.

  19. As I think about this some more I remember that Jesus never said anything abotu the lottery or casinos in the gospels but he did speak out against the temple treasury.

    He said the scribes and pharisees were devouring widows houses, and right after saying so he sees a widow throwing her whole living into the treasury and he points her out to the disciples. Here then the temple treasury was declared by Jesus to be a tax on the poor. They were devouring widows houses taking all their money. It was not the lottery or the casino doing it. It was the preachers.

  20. Jerry, do you attend a Church of Christ denomination?

  21. do you?

  22. Why won’t you answer?

  23. No Jerry, what is really funny is to get on a religious forum and instead of discussing religious ideas, rant and rail with hateful and derogatory terms against anything Christian.

  24. anne, as per those you’ve helped later buying lottery tickets, i’ve been struggling with this lately. and i can’t find anything in the bible that would make me believe we should have any say in what others do with money we give them. i want badly to be in a position to demand frugality and expect responsibility, but i just don’t find that.

    and then i think about how and whom God gifts with financial blessings — even though they may spend his money unwisely. i do find promises of more money to be given to those who give to the poor — in order to further their ministries. but i don’t find God doing what i want to do, which is to only give to those needy who will use the money wisely. anyway, just what’s been on my mind.

  25. James: yes it is on their head what they do with the money, and we will be blessed for giving, but I do have a problem with being lied to about why they need the money. One of the times I was thinking about was when my husband and I hadn’t been married very long and of course didn’t have much money. We happened to have a little (must have been given to us by my parents) so we went into town and had lunch at a little diner. The waitress gave us a a story about how broke she was and I think she had some little kids. My husband gave her a big tip, I think $20 or so. As we were leaving town we stopped at a convenience store and my husband saw her in the store buying lottery tickets! This hasn’t been the only instance, but one of many of people abusing the benevolent nature of the church. In fact, we could probably fill a book!

  26. Money is often a poor choice to give. Often food, clothing, or going shopping with someone is better benevolence. Its just harder to go the extra mile than to pay another to do it.

  27. larry, i agree with you. and i try to help people with their actual needs when i can — rather than giving cash. but i still can’t help but think that God doesn’t do that with us.

    anne, it is really frustrating when people spend money you’ve given on something like lottery tickets. and even more frustrating when they’ve lied to you in order to do so. but it also seems there’s a lot to be said for allowing people freedom of choice, and letting a gift really be a gift. for me, personally, i kind of feel like the first gift i give is one in which i trust you and allow you freedom to use however you might like. but i’m more likely to help you a second time if you used the money for a legitimate need. i feel like that’s closest to what God does. but i still struggle to know what’s right.

  28. Re: People receive money from a church or church’s members and then buy lottery tickets.

    IMHO patience is a virtue and buying lottery tickets is an act of impatience. The odds of winning are tiny but greater than zero. Instead of using the gifted money in a slow and steady walk out of financial trouble (requiring patience) a person gambles the money on the lottery hoping for a quick fix to their finances.

    And sometimes some people lie to some other people about what they are going to do with the money.

    Some people fall to the sin of lying. Some people lack the virtue of patience. I am glad that I have no sins and have all virtues and have no need of Christ’s forgiveness (not).

  29. I certainly appreciate the concern folks have about how gifts are used by the recipients of those gifts.

    I come down on the side of being responsible for giving. I’m not responsible for how the recipient uses the gift.

    John 13:34 say to love one another the way Jesus loved us. He gave us the greatest gift of all, and we abuse the gift nearly, if not actually, every day. Who am I to judge another?

  30. No we don’t have a say in what people do with the money they are given, we should give to those who ask for help, but we are to use a little prudence in how we give. Yes, we learned a lesson about giving cash and I learned a lesson about letting my husband carrying cash! After 20 years though you do get a bit jaded by people who abuse the generosity of the church, but God will judge them, we are just supposed to help those who ask. And I know there will be some who argue with me about this, but there are those who make a living preying on the generosity of churches.

  31. Anne, we know you last comment is true. Our most ecumenical action is often chercking with neighbor churches about people asking for help. Our benevolence person knows their comterpart in many surrounding churches.

  32. most rational people have a policy of only giving food/clothing and never money itself. in todays world youd have to be crazy to give cash. do you want to help fuel someones crack addiction?

  33. Larry,

    Thomas Jefferson would agree, even though he was both a lawyer and a farmer. But lawyers are like bankers. We commercial lawyers support those who actually accomplish something worthwhile.

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