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Chance or community chest?

The morality of gambling

[Note: This sermon was preached at this time in 1996 when public concern at the effects of greatly increased expenditure on gambling was being voiced, especially by church leaders, but when the State government in Victoria was highly critical of the churches for raising these matters in political debate. In later years concern is more widespread and supported by much better evidence including a study by the Productivity Commission which reported to the Commonwealth Government (Australian Federal Government) in 1999. Some minor efforts have been made by the Victorian State Government to reduce the impact of "problem gambling", but those working in the field believe much more needs to be done and that state governments generally have become too dependent upon income from taxes on gambling.]

The growth of gambling in this state in the last few years has been a feature of community life and state politics. Church leaders of different denominations have been in fairly close agreement in questioning the morality of this development. In the past we might have expected objections to be raised by the more conservative Protestant groups, but it is significant that we have seen Catholic and Uniting Church spokespeople together with Anglicans, Baptists and others, making similar statements, especially in regard to the social consequences of a gambling culture and the reliance of the State Government on revenue from gambling to fund a significant proportion of the state budget. We hear stories of families in distress and this week a judge of the County Court (Judge Marilyn Harbison) had some strong things to say about a "problem gambler" being encouraged to continue gambling, likening it to publican illegally serving liquor to someone who is already drunk. The Casino has denied some of the facts of the case and the Premier has defended the Casino and gambling in general. The Age published an editorial on Friday calling for "a rigorous and independent enquiry into the social impact of the casino". The Uniting Church Synod of Victoria has taken a similar position in the past as may be seen in the Synod resolutions I have reproduced today.

This is one of the topics of current interest which I have undertaken to speak about during this winter period. It is timely, but it is different. It is one of those things on which people need to make up their own minds in the light of the facts in our present situation. While there are biblical foundations for a Christian attitude to gambling, there is no direct teaching in the Bible on this subject. Of course, you always have to decide for yourself, but in this you can only work from general principles without very specific guidance from the scriptures or even from the traditions of the church. Although our recent traditions are quite strong in this respect, it has not always been the case in the long history of the church.

I come from a tradition in which gambling was absolutely prohibited in the laws of the Church. Members of the Methodist Church were not allowed gamble. That was a stronger position than the opposition of the Methodist Church to drinking alcohol. Other churches in our traditions in the Uniting Church were also generally, though perhaps not as strictly, opposed to gambling. Other Christians had quite different attitudes, most notably in the Roman Catholic Church although Catholic authorities now are among those who have been critical of current public policy. It is interesting to speculate on how the earlier differences arose.

Opposition to gambling was not such a feature of the life among Methodists and others in our traditions 200 and more years ago, but in the nineteenth century Methodists especially were concerned with overcoming social evils which caused much suffering among the poorer sections of society. Just as many of the early leaders of the trade union movement were Methodist pay preachers and class leaders, so those who worked in the great mission churches in the new industrial cities sought passionately to free people from various forms of bondage. It was also part of the women's movement of the time, around a hundred years ago, when wives and children were seen to suffer the consequences of vices such as drinking and gambling which then attracted and enslaved their men. The Salvation Army was born of a Methodist background in these circumstances at the end of the last Century.

Obviously things have changed. Among people whose great grandparents followed strict Methodist or Presbyterian ways, the new discipline of abstaining from harmful recreations 100 years ago, though something new then, has come to be regarded as old fashioned and irrelevant. It is easy for opposition today to be represented as coming only from "yesterday's people", even if the majority of the population agree that gambling is a serious social problem (which is shown in recent survey results). The Uniting Church officially has reached a new position of opposition, not so much from reviving the old rules as from having to deal with some of the consequences of freedoms being abused. Interestingly, the Catholics who used to be much more liberal in such things are coming out quite strongly against what the former Premier and others regard as progressive. We could say that Christians are agreeing more than in earlier generations and that what they oppose is not really progressive, in the sense of expanding human capacity and freedoms, as what is sometimes propagated as a sign of freedom and progress is in fact a reversion to old ways in which the vulnerable are abused.



We need to consider two rather different aspects of gambling. One is the social consequences in terms of how people in general are affected by the growth of gambling. This includes its affects on family budgets, and changes to taxation as more revenue is raised from those who gamble and less from those who do not. There are tragic consequences such a bankruptcies, loss of homes, broken marriages and suicides. These social consequences have implications for public policy and should influence the way that state laws are made and administered. The other kind of question is more a matter of individual morality, in which we ask, is it right for me regardless of what the law allows? I will come back to this, but first let us look at some of the concerns which have arisen on the public policy issues.

Gambling as a public policy

Governments and business people with an interest in it can easily, in our supposedly "free society", argue that people should be able to make their own choices in such matters, even if some are not able to make wise decisions. It is much more difficult, however, to avoid responsibility for large scale affects of an industry on the community as a whole. The retail traders association, for example, is very concerned about the affects on trade particularly in smaller rural communities and suburban centres. You can test this yourself by talking to shopkeepers, for example, as I did in Box Hill recently. I remember too that when poker machines were introduced into country towns like Wonthaggi and Bairnsdale in Gippsland a few years ago the total amount spent in shops in the town dropped by 7% -- enough to put quite a lot of people out of work, even if some gained new jobs in hotels and other places where poker machines were placed.

Local research is relatively limited at this stage but there is evidence that while there have been some shifts in gambling expenditure itself, new money is now being spent on gambling and not on clothing, footwear (47% less by regular gamblers), entertainment, holidays and even donations. One UC agency based at Broadmeadows reported a 500% increase in requests for assistance in three years, due to the affects of gambling, while there has been an decease in donations.

Research in the United States is already showing that gambling industry, which has greatly expanded there also, brings large and unseen costs to the community. These include the upsurge in crime and the cost of keeping people in prison, the cost of long term support to families of compulsive gamblers, the cost on the welfare sector of emergency relief, the cost of lost employment time and increased social security benefits, the cost to retail trade with shifts in disposable income, the costs in terms of health, to name just a few. After the introduction of gaming machines into Atlantic City, 40% of local businesses folded. Research has shown that as a minimum 15% of gambling revenue must come from outside sources to compensate local community cost. A Senate inquiry was held in the US in response to widespread concern about the amount being spent on gambling. [From Synod Commission for Mission.] I saw some of this concern when I was in America.

It is not the high rollers and tourists but the ordinary people on low and fixed incomes who provide the bulk of the income to government and investors in gambling. It is in effect a viciously regressive form of taxation. There is research evidence in Victoria that the people most likely to be regular gamblers have low incomes, below $20,000 per year. There are about half a million regular users of the gaming machines and the Casino in Victoria and they are much more likely to come from the less affluent Northern and Western suburbs than the more prosperous Eastern and South-Eastern parts of Melbourne. It appears to have been a result of deliberate policy that three times as many machines have been place in the poorer suburbs as in better off areas with the same population. Gambling income to the State Government, largely from these poorer sections of the community, constituted 13% of the State budget in 1996 and is growing. These taxes, paid by those who can least afford to pay, save people like us in Templestowe from having to pay more to provide basic services.

It is not true, despite all the talk of "progressive" attitudes and the claimed unpopularity of contrary opinions, that the majority of citizens agree with the State Government policy. In a public opinion survey 1996, 69% disagreed with the statement that "gambling does more good than it does harm". Indeed 63% of Victorians believe that gambling is a serious social problem and 64% believe that it has got worse in the past three years. [Bronwyn Pike, Synod Director of Justice and Social Responsibility, and later a minister in the Victorian Government.] Many people now know that the social consequences which were so much feared by earlier generations have returned with a vengeance, and it continues to get worse. The implications seem to me to be clear: it is bad public policy to promote a massive increase in gambling and to make the State dependent on income from such a source.

The personal morality of gambling

You might still say that most people are able to act responsibly and that there is nothing wrong with a little bit of fun in which gambling plays a part. Is the excitement any more damaging to a person than a ride on the big dipper? Do we not often take deliberate risks. Is it very different from socially approved risks such as might be taken by investors on the stock market? If we think of it simply as a form of entertainment, which is what its promoters claim it should be, why should people not spend an amount they choose and which they can afford? Anyway, do not most of us play cards or other games of chance, some perhaps with an additional skill factor, as an amusement; so why not add a little excitement by making the outcome mean a little more.

Of course we know that people cannot act as rationally as that view might suggest. As for the idea of harmless excitement, I do wonder about the supposed excitement, especially as it is sometimes portrayed on TV. I have not [had not then] actually been to the Melbourne casino, but what struck me observing people at gaming tables and machines in Hobart and Las Vegas is how dreadfully solemn, blank-faced and distant they appeared -- not a smile to be seen anywhere! It is a very focussed activity that removes people from the social environment. It is easy to get hooked and spend more than you intend; but let us suppose that neither you nor others will suffer by your spending too much. Is there anything wrong with it then. I am sure there are plenty of pastimes that do more harm, but I would still ask you to think about why you do it, if you do.

As I said at the beginning, it not something on which I would wish to lay down a general rule that applies to all people, at all times, and in all situation. You could ague that it can be treated like alcohol, some people wisely choose total abstinence while other learn to enjoy it by acting responsibly. Some members of the church might also with a good conscience invest in the gambling industry or feel happy about being employed in it, in spite of evidence of social harm that it does. I respect such personal choices if they are made responsibly. But I think if you are involved in the industry, either as a provider or a consumer, it raises other questions in which you need to consider for you own sake the motives, attitudes and beliefs that go with gambling.

How much is greed the motive? Does it tend to make money the ultimate value? And when you gamble what kind of a world to you believe in? Is it orderly, fatalistic, providential or chaotic, or all of the above? What kind of God is there in such a world? Do you tend to become superstitious, doing silly things to avoid back luck, or to control the outcome? Are you more likely to trust God as a result, or will you try to manipulate or bargain with God; or will you take a fatalistic view that what will be will be, or that God helps those who help themselves?

I believe that we live in a world in which chance plays a natural part. It is not true that everything is fixed in advance. This provides room for human freedom while making us never entirely at ease in an imperfect world. The thing about gambling, however, is that instead of enhancing the human capacity for choice and increasing control of one's destiny, it actually limits our freedom. When we deliberately make something worthwhile depend on chance we give up that much control and that much responsibility -- "I didn't do it." "It was the dice or the cards"; or "Lady Luck that did me in." -- "I'm not responsible." On the contrary I think we are responsible, by way acting as stewards of whatever God has placed in our hands.

Now you will see that I have done a very unusual thing. For once I have apparently preached a whole sermon without a quotation from the Bible. I'll make up for that another day and leave you to think about the texts you would have chosen. There are some very interesting examples of the casting of lots to learn the will of God; and it appears that reliance upon priestly divination, which was common in ancient Israel until the time of King David, was replaced in the later history of Israel by the word of God spoken by the prophets. In any case, I would ask you to consider the prophetic word of the church today, in agreement with many other people of good will, that gambling is now a serious problem in our community, and that there are good reasons for Christians to oppose it.

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APPENDIX

Uniting Church in Australia

Synod of Victoria

Some Synod Resolutions on Gambling

1979 To request the State Government not to proceed with the introduction of a casino in this State. Synod believes there is already more than sufficient facilities for gambling in Victoria; and there is neither need nor demand for a casino. ....

To request that Presbyteries and Parishes continue to make public their opposition via the media, City and Shire Councils, he Council of Churches and its regional branches.

1988 To remind the Federal Government [re the plan for a casino in Canberra] that:-

(i) much harm is caused by casino gambling, as affirmed in the recent Social Impact Study on Civic Development and the Casino;

(ii) the economic benefits of casinos are extremely doubtful, as much additional money as much additional money is required from the public purse to pay for the social costs of supporting damaged individuals and families, to monitor the legality of the casino's operation and to put in place the necessary safeguards and surveillance which will make it more difficult for infiltration of criminal elements.

1990 To declare its opposition to the introduction of further gambling facilities in the form of casinos, poker machines and taberet.

1994 That the Synod request the Victorian Government to make public its comprehensive gambling strategy for the State of Victoria including plans for the analysis of the social impact of the Crown Casino.

1995 [It was unanimously resolved] To inform the State Government of our total opposition to the increased gambling opportunities and in particular to the changes to the Crown Casino development which have occurred with no community consultation.

Some facts and figures from the Synod Commission for Mission showing how gambling acts as a form of regressive taxation with a major impact on the community, 1996

revenue from gambling now accounts for 13% of the State budget and is growing

about 15%, that is 500,000 people, are gambling at least once a month at the Casino or 'pokies', spending an average of $73 per week, and spend less on household goods

those who gamble most have low incomes (under $20,000 per year)

there are three times as many gaming machines in the poorer suburbs as in others

the Uniting Church agency Care based in Broadmeadows has had a 500% increase over three years in requests for assistance, due to the effects of gambling

63% of Victorians believe that gambling is a serious social problem

Some Bible references to casting lots in ancient Israel and New Testament times

I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat, and I will enter into judgment with them there, on account of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations. They have divided my land, {3} and cast lots for my people, and traded boys for prostitutes, and sold girls for wine, and drunk it down. -- Joel 3:2-3

The sailors said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. -- Jonah 1:7

Yet she became an exile, she went into captivity; even her infants were dashed in pieces at the head of every street; lots were cast for her nobles, all her dignitaries were bound in fetters. -- Nahum 3:10

Then Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, and the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. {21} He brought the tribe of Benjamin near by its families, and the family of the Matrites was taken by lot. Finally he brought the family of the Matrites near man by man, and Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot. But when they sought him, he could not be found. -- 1 Samuel 10:20-21

We have also cast lots among the priests, the Levites, and the people, for the wood offering, to bring it into the house of our God, by ancestral houses, at appointed times, year by year, to burn on the altar of the LORD our God, as it is written in the law. -- Nehemiah 10:34

You shall describe the land in seven divisions and bring the description here to me; and I will cast lots for you here before the LORD our God. -- Joshua 18:6

So the men started on their way; and Joshua charged those who went to write the description of the land, saying, "Go throughout the land and write a description of it, and come back to me; and I will cast lots for you here before the LORD in Shiloh." -- Joshua 18:8

The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord's alone. -- Proverbs 16:33

NT Ballein kleron [casting lots to know the divine will common among Jews and pagans] [kleros - a man's as his inheritance] Method: putting stone of various colours or symbols in a vessel and shaking it until one jumped out seemes to remove the human element so God might make the choice -- the intent of Acts 1:26

And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. -- Acts 1:26

The solders casting lots for Jesus' garments indicate his humiliation by usurping the prerogative of God -- Mark 15:24 and parallels

And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. -- Mark 15:24

Urim and Thummin: questions -- usually Yes or No -- addressed by man to God. In some "ephod" is substituted for "urim and thummin" eg

When David learned that Saul was plotting evil against him, he said to the priest Abiathar, "Bring the ephod here." {10} David said, "O LORD, the God of Israel, your servant has heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city on my account. {11} And now, will Saul come down as your servant has heard? O LORD, the God of Israel, I beseech you, tell your servant." The LORD said, "He will come down." {12} Then David said, "Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?" The LORD said, "They will surrender you." -- 1 Samuel 23:9-12

David said to the priest Abiathar son of Ahimelech, "Bring me the ephod." So Abiathar brought the ephod to David. {8} David inquired of the LORD, "Shall I pursue this band? Shall I overtake them?" He answered him, "Pursue; for you shall surely overtake and shall surely rescue." -- 1 Samuel 30:7-8

Refusal of God to respond may be tantamount to No:

Then Saul said, "Let us go down after the Philistines by night and despoil them until the morning light; let us not leave one of them." They said, "Do whatever seems good to you." But the priest said, "Let us draw near to God here." {37} So Saul inquired of God, "Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you give them into the hand of Israel?" But he did not answer him that day. -- 1 Samuel 14:36-37

When Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, not by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets. -- 1 Samuel 28:6

When Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, not by dreams, or by Urim(1), or by prophets. {7} Then Saul said to his servants, "Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, so that I may go to her and inquire of her." His servants said to him, "There is a medium at Endor." {8} So Saul disguised himself and put on other clothes and went there, he and two men with him. They came to the woman by night. And he said, "Consult a spirit for me, and bring up for me the one whom I name to you." {9} The woman said to him, "Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the wizards from the land. Why then are you laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?" -- 1 Samuel 28:6-9

(1) "URIM" Apparently by casting lots:-224. 'Uwriym, oo-reem'; plur. of H217; lights; Urim, the oracular brilliancy of the figures in the high-priest's breastplate:--Urim.



Then Saul said, "O LORD God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant today? If this guilt is in me or in my son Jonathan, O LORD God of Israel, give Urim; but if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim(1)." And Jonathan and Saul were indicated by the lot, but the people were cleared. -- 1 Samuel 14:41

(1) "THUMMIM" ?? cf H8550 tamiym fr? thummin?

8549. tamiym, taw-meem'; from H8552; entire (lit., fig. or mor.); also (as noun) integrity, truth:--without blemish, complete, full, perfect, sincerely (-ity), sound, without spot, undefiled, upright (-ly), whole.

8550. Tummiym, toom-meem'; plur. of H8537; perfections, i.e. (techn.) one of the epithets of the objects in the high-priest's breastplate as an emblem of complete Truth:--Thummim.

U and Th not consulted after the time of David?? -- probably due to the prophets becoming the means of knowing the will of God -- see Ezra etc

Deposited in the "breastpiece" of the chief priest, a small square pocket of multicoloured stuff, on his heart, above the ephod:

In the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron's heart when he goes in before the LORD; thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Israelites on his heart before the LORD continually. -- Exodus 28:30

You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work; you shall make it in the style of the ephod; of gold, of blue and purple and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen you shall make it. -- Exodus 28:15

It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. -- Exodus 28:16

You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald shall be the first row; -- Exodus 28:17

It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. -- Exodus 28:16

Deut 33:8 implies all Levites had access to U and Th:

And of Levi he said: Give to Levi your Thummim, and your Urim to your loyal one, whom you tested at Massah, with whom you contended at the waters of Meribah; -- Deuteronomy 33:8

the governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim. -- Ezra 2:63

End of Appendix

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