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 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, it does mean that there can be no net gain in wealth — whatever wealth is created 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 for entertainment, 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 gambling 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 the 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 at all 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?