EDITOR, The Tribune.
Please permit me space in your paper to comment on two articles entitled "Why Does The Church Oppose Gambling" and "Church 'Predicament' Over Gambling" which appeared in the May 17th and 29th editions of The Tribune, respectively.
In the first article, the person commenting pressed for clarity and unambiguity from "the church" on the question of why the church opposes gambling and whether or not gambling is a sin or is morally evil. After citing numerous instances of pastors who live lavishly from the tithes and offerings derived from their congregations, he lamented the incongruence and incoherence of the church's message on gambling; both in what some of its representatives say and in how they live. The commenter concluded by opining that: "The church in (the Bahamas) is not in the moral position to speak out against gambling..." on account of its silence on other moral issues, including its own lavish misuse of "God's money".
The commenter states clearly that he is an "evangelical Christian" who is opposed to gambling firstly on account of his denomination's faith, and secondly, on account of its illegality according to Bahamian law. But one wonders what his stance might be if gambling were to be legalised following a referendum since he writes that, "The Bible tells (him) in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 to obey the laws of the civil government"? He further writes, "As a Christian, I am morally bound to obey God's infallible Word...A true Christian will respect the civil government. Any person, Christian or non-Christian, who defies the government is treading on dangerous soil". But if gambling is legalised, will the commenter obey the laws of the civil society or will he obey the Word of God? This quandary is the very reason why Christians need to remember that the Church is not the State, and the State is not the Church; allegiance to one will inevitably call into question one's allegiance to the other. When a Christian's allegiance to God means that s/he must defy or call into question the decrees or commands of those in authority, then the scriptures themselves bear witness that one will be treading on dangerous soil; and this is not a bad thing. Just look at Jesus and the martyrs of the faith.
In the second article, the former chairman of the Bahamas Gaming Reform committee argued that the Bahamian public is already gambling whether we legally recognise it or not. He further argued that in the interest of fairness, equality and economic prudence it (gambling) should be regularized, and the decision to do so should be placed before the Bahamian people in a referendum. Therefore, churches which now collect a "voluntary tax" (tithes), but yet oppose a referendum on this form of "voluntary tax" (gambling) are not only being hypocritical, but are also placing themselves in opposition to a "pro-gambling" public. He states: "Bahamians want to game and will not stop. However, this hypocrisy must cease. Churches that enforce on its members a tithe and other 'voluntary taxes' on all income, legal or illegal, now want to prevent the government from legally taxing an existing enterprise." Nevertheless, in an important way, both articles cited above seek to draw our attention to what they believe is the "predicament" that the church finds itself in today, and the need for the church to speak more clearly on the issue of gambling.
First, however, on a point of clarification, I question the term "voluntary tax". Taxes are by definition imposed or legislated and are not voluntary but compulsory. So the term "voluntary tax" is oxymoronic and unhelpful. Second, tithing as a practice was never to be done under "enforcement" or "compulsion", but rather, cheerfully and ungrudgingly. According to Malachi 3, following God's judgment on Israel's moral depravity, the practice of tithing was anticipated as the "external evidence" Israel's "internal repentance" (returning to God). All things belong to God. Therefore, the tithe was also that which was rightly due to God so that the "least of these" - i.e. the oppressed, widowed, orphaned and alien - could be cared for. Hence, the tithes were to be freely given in support of this work. In other words, tithing is not a matter of "voluntary taxation." Rather, it is a matter of stewardship and the appropriate use of what God has first entrusted to us. Third, when I refer to gambling in the following comments, I am referring to its particularly virulent, habitual and addictive forms.
What is gambling and is it right or wrong?
On an economic level, the practice of gambling, in the form of a national lottery is very simply an economic system of exchange into which many individuals contribute "small" amounts, and comparatively huge payouts are made only to a few. It is a game of chance. However, the reality is that those who take this chance - and play "religiously" - are often those who are either overworked and/or underpaid and who perhaps can least afford to part with those funds. So, a lottery is essentially and implicitly an exploitative system of exchange which heavily and inequitably exploits and burdens the poor. To participate or encourage participation in such a system is, in my opinion, unloving.
On a spiritual and moral level, the practice of gambling essentially trains individuals to aspire to gain (or lose) large sums of money within a very short space of time. I can think of few practices that invite more opportunities for the self-destruction of one's character and well-being either as an individual or as a nation (1 Timothy 6:9-10). We have only to reflect on our past history in shipwrecking, bootlegging, blockade running, and compare it now to prostitution, drug trafficking, human trafficking, trade in illegal firearms and other forms of organised crime entered into in order to "make ends meet." As a practice, gambling trains us to place our hope for a better life, security and a better future in the acquisition of money and an abundance of possessions; that is, to desire and to place our hope in "some-thing" other than in God. The futility of such a misplaced hope - in light of the preciousness of the human creature - is seen in the parable of the rich man and his decision to pull down his barns and build larger ones. In short, because the practice of gambling engenders intense and selfish desires for money, it not only trains us to be greedy, but it also trains us to be idolatrous! It is little wonder that St Paul spoke of greed as a form of idolatry (Col 3:5). Anything that seeks to usurp God's place in our lives and thereby compromise our love for our neighbour, is a moral evil. It is on this basis that the practice of gambling should be opposed.
Often when Romans 13 is quoted, persons often stop reading at vs. 7. But if you continue reading verses 8-14, you will see that Christians are called to be subject to the governing authorities except where that "governing authority" forces you to contravene the law of love towards God and towards your neighbour. This is precisely what a lottery does by (i) training you in idolatry, and (ii) by encouraging you to participate in a system of exchange that further victimises those who have already been victimised by the current economic system. Should the nation decide by referendum to legalize gambling, always remember that as a Christian you are free to choose to love God and to work honestly for whatever you have. You are free to choose to love your neighbour, and not to gamble! The assertion in the second article that "Bahamians want to game and will not stop..." is a symptom of where our country is morally. People are now looking to gambling to "make ends meet" or to be their "bread and butter." It is also an indictment on the moral failings of the church; that is, on its failing to train the members of Christ's body to live godly lives that are "rightly-ordered" and "appropriate" in relation to money and other material possessions.
Questioning the questions:
The fact that we as a nation are considering a national referendum on the legalisation of gambling at a time in our nation's history when we are faced with an unprecedented crime wave should raise a huge red flag. A national referendum on the legalisation of gambling or the regularisation of gaming will not resolve but only exacerbate what is essentially a deeply moral issue. I do not believe that our nation is in a position to rightly decide whether or not a national lottery or the legalisation of gambling is in our country's best interest. The reality is, if the ability of a nation or a people to live morally - and therefore make good moral choices - has already been corrupted, then even when that nation or people are given the opportunity to "freely" make a (moral) decision, they will likely make corrupted or immoral decisions. So while on one hand democracies - and democratic processes such as referenda - may give the appearance that the people have been empowered to choose freely in the best interest of the majority, the reality is that democratic referenda such as this one may actually present the majority with the option for further bondage and disempowerment. In other words, it presents the wrong question to be answered. I question whether the government is asking the nation or people to make a decision about the right question. The question likely to be asked is whether or not we should legalise gambling and/or institute a national lottery. But perhaps a better question might be: "How might we seek to truly empower our people and structure our society in true integrity of character and true social and economic equality such that the question of whether or not to legalise gambling is increasingly less necessary or likely to be raised?"
Furthermore, the question should be asked: "Is gambling as a practice something which we deem to be in the best interest of our nation, and therefore something we wish to have as part of our culture?" Obviously, the government will work to implement what it feels is best for the nation. But this does not mean that Christians will always agree with the government's determination of what is "best." In such instances, just as the government cannot force Christians to contravene their faith, Christians should not seek to pressure the government to enforce Christian ethics upon the nation. Churches simply need to focus on the moral formation of their members, and Christians simply need not patronise the number houses. While one may look to a national referendum to resolve this issue, one quickly rediscovers that morality cannot be instantaneously legislated. The specific system of values and principles of conduct which govern how we make distinctions between "right" and "wrong" are skills that must be learned and acquired over time; like learning a language.
Questioning the underlying motivations:
Nevertheless, as we move inevitably towards a national referendum, I invite you to pay close attention to the debates and in particular to those who support the legalisation of gambling and/or the regularisation of number houses. No doubt you will be told about the potential benefits such as the increased revenue (economic impact) likely to be derived from its implementation and regulation. You will be told how such funds can be used to further our development in education, healthcare, and our social infrastructure. You will be told how hundreds of jobs will be created, and you will likely also hear rhetoric about equality in our gaming laws for Bahamians, and not being treated as second-class citizens in our own country. Nevertheless, if you listen carefully you will also notice that while you will be told that such benefits are in support of our national progress, this slippery term "progress" will be conceived mainly and narrowly in "economic" terms. But as I have tried to demonstrate, human creatures are not one-dimensional economic beings, and therefore our "progress" as a nation should not merely be a one-dimensional measure of our financial or material acquisitions. Rather, our progress should be measured more holistically in terms of the development of the content of our character and well-being as human creatures; that is, we should give serious and urgent thought to the kind of people and nation we hope to become, and the spiritual, intellectual, social values - just to name a few - which we hope to inculcate in the up-and-coming generations of Bahamians in support of such development.
Indeed, I find it somewhat curious that our social and political leaders seem more willing to consider a referendum on a national lottery, as opposed to considering a referendum on a more equitable national system of income taxation. If we are truly interested in the development of our education, healthcare, and our social infrastructure, then why not consider how we might go about implementing a more proportional system of national income-taxation, so that those who earn more pay more, and those who earn less pay less? A significant proportion of our working-population is already employed in the public service, and private employers and employees could be required by law to report their income. Surely it should not be an insurmountable task to ascertain taxable income. This kind of regulatory regime would also encourage and facilitate the implementation of certain "checks and balances" that will serve to help mitigate economic corruption in our nation as a whole. If the majority of anticipated benefits to be derived from a national lottery system could be derived otherwise from a national income-tax regime, then why do we even need to consider the former? We always seem ready and willing to follow our more developed neighbours to the north in other areas. But why is it that we seem so unwilling to follow them in implementing a national income-tax system? This suggestion is nothing new; it was a recommendation of the report from the Russell Commission of Inquiry 1942! It was a recommendation ignored by the lawmakers and economic powers at that time; arguably because they were the ones for whom such a system would prove most costly. Those who make our laws today perhaps find themselves in the same predicament. Now 70 years later, it will be interesting to see whether our lawmakers have the courage, selflessness and political will to finally implement a national income-tax system.
A call for consistency and integrity:
Whether or not one agrees with the practice of gambling, the gaming law as it now stands is biased. Therefore, rather than pointing fingers at the church, I call upon the governing authorities to simply be consistent; either you legalise gambling in the Bahamas for both foreigner and local alike, or you make it illegal for all, and implement the means to enforce the same. Either way, this looming referendum as it is currently anticipated, is a non-question for Christians. Christians who are submitted to Christ's lordship will not need an external law in order to determine right behaviour for them. That law will be written on their hearts. Therefore, exhort the church and its leadership to refrain from trying to be politicians in the secular sense, focus on teaching, training and equipping your members for the work of ministry, for there is much to be done! Help them to decide which God they will serve, and to learn what it means to courageously "tread on dangerous soil." By the word of God and your own example, teach the church how to be the church in word and deed - train them in the right way and when they become mature in their faith they will not stray. Above all, teach them to avoid the temptation to want to become rich, "for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains".
REV FR THEADORE HUNT
Anglican Diocese of the Bahamas & Turks and Caicos Islands