The church and gambling - a burning moral issue



THE RECENT statement of the Rev Dr Ranford Patterson, President of the Bahamas Christian Council, regarding the Church and gambling is by no means to be considered as a retreat from participation in its endeavour to deal with this “burning moral issue”.

It is possible to conceive of it or even to go so far as to viewing it as almost tacit licence to patronise “the numbers houses”. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

There are several reasons why.

While the public in a referendum voted against legalising gambling, “the powers that be” nevertheless went ahead and granted gambling to take place. This now affords legal sanction to a practice which had been in operation for many years openly, although illegal. This means that all citizens may participate in gambling without fear of legal prohibition. On the other hand, those who, on grounds of conscience or moral principle are opposed to gambling, may refrain from doing so. You see, while gambling, in any form is one of those areas of human endeavour where the legal and moral aspects are often confused, there is a clear, unequivocal difference between them.

Some years ago, I, a Minister of the Methodist Church, had the privilege of leading a Bible Study in Panama, a country which has had, for many years, a national lottery in operation. Yet, the Methodist Church, always strongly opposed to gambling, is active and has a growing membership there. I recall discussing this discrepancy with the then President of the Methodist Church in Panama, the Rev Luis Veagra. He explained that the Church did not openly preach against “the National Lottery as it was legal and entrenched in the nation”. However, he emphasised that the church instructs, or to use the language of its ethical statements, “encourages its members not to participate in it”. While, then, the members of the church are legally entitled to participate in the National Lottery, they are expected, on moral grounds, not to do so!

Applying this approach to the situation in the Bahamas today, now that gambling has been legalised, a similar condition pertains. While all residents may patronise “the numbers houses”, there is room for those churches or denominations which are opposed to gambling “on moral grounds” to encourage their members to refrain from doing so.

This brings us directly to the first response - responsibility - of the church with regard to gambling. It must constantly state and reiterate its position for the public, and more so for the sake of reminding its members of their duty to bear in mind the moral principles involved. What are they? They were discussed and elaborated upon extensively during the months leading up to the referendum (later explained as “non-constitutional”, ie “an opinion poll”) and space certainly does not permit us to repeat them here.

Concisely, the main moral principles at stake include:

Gambling, in any form, is based upon the idea of luck or chance, and is therefore incompatible with the doctrine of Divine providence and provision for one’s welfare and well-being (Psalm 24).

At its core, gambling by its very nature means that in order for one to win, others must lose. This is against the Law of Love as expounded by Christ, which calls for the exercise of love at all times (Matt. 5-7; Mark 12:28-32; Lk. 10; 1 Cor. 13).

Gambling often promotes laziness in that those who indulge in it may do so instead of seeking to earn a living by the application of their knowledge and strength. This is incompatible with the Biblical injunction “by the sweat of thy brow, thou shalt eat bread” (Gen 3:19; 1 Thess. 3:6-10).

4 Gambling, as the Rev Dr Kenneth Huggins, often reminds us, can be most detrimental to home and family life. The earnings of the breadwinner of a family, which should be used for its support, may be lost in gambling. This, indeed, was the case in the days of “the race track” (Hobby Horse Hall): there were those who made their way to the race track before reaching home.

It is imperative, therefore, that those who are opposed to gambling on moral and religious grounds should continue to voice their convicitions loud and clear so that everyone can hear.

Contemporary preachers and prophets such as Pastor Lyall Bethel, Pastor Mario Moxey, Dr Rex Major, Bishop Theophilus Rolle, Dr Patterson and others who were vocal during the lead up to the referendum should continue to do so, making clear that the position of the church has not changed. In principle, then, those who did not participate in gambling before the referendum, should continue so to act. In the vernacular, “Een nuttin’ change!”

Secondly, the church has an important role in the regulation of gambling. There is provision for the regulation of “the numbers industry,” which should be rigidly enforced.

For instance, there are rules with regard to the location of “numbers houses”, indicating that they should not be located near to places of worship or education.

In this regard, the Rt Rev Drexel Gomez has expressed concern at “the proliferation” of gambling institutions in our young nation. This must also be of grave concern to all persons who would like to see the balanced development of the people. The Church in general - and the Bahamas Christian Council in particular - should be vigilant and proactive in making sure that the regulations regarding the location and number of such “number houses” are enforced and adhered to at all times. As Archbishop William Temple would put it, here the Church must serve as “The Conscience of the Nation”.

Finally, the Church must exercise a positive ministry in this area of human endeavour. Specifically, it is not enough for the Church to express its opposition to gambling. It is also called upon to exercise a ministry of compassion towards those who, for whatever reason, may become addicted to this practice. For instance, people who spend large amounts of their income on gambling without being able to control their behaviour.

I recall an observation which made an indelible impression upon me. It happened during my first visit to Freeport many years ago, before I was ordained to the Ministry. Those were the days when many gamblers came to Freeport, many of them flying to Grand Bahama to gamble in the evening, returning to the United States next morning. Though, legally and morally, I could not gamble, I did have the opportunity one evening to visit a casino.

There was a middle-aged American tourist who spent all her time at the slot machines. She gambled until she had gained a few thousand dollars. She continued until she had lost everything. Then she left the casino, apparently in a joyful mood. I could not help thinking that for some reason, she wanted to lose. Perhaps she was punishing herself or simply was a compulsive gambler who simply could not control herself when she got to a slot machine.

Evidently, the reasons why people engage in gambling to the extent that they are addicted to it are indeed “many and varied”. For, like alcoholism or “drugs” it can become an addiction.

Now, the Rev Dr Colin Archer has made an “in depth” study of alcoholism, demonstrating that it is a disease which must be treated. This, of course, is the position of Alcoholics Anonymous, a worldwide organisation dedicated to assisting persons who are addicted to strong drinks. It is submitted that there is much to be done in the field of ministering to people who become addicts of gambling. The church can serve here exercising a ministry of counselling, based on compassion in imitation of Christ, designed to bring about the rehabilitation (salvation) of those who find themselves helplessly addicted to gambling – working men who gamble away hard earned cash in gambling before “meeting their bills”, elderly ladies who spend long hours playing bingo, etc. All this requires much more “in depth” study of the reasons why so many people become addicted to gambling.

Concisely, there is “a crying need” for someone in the church (a Pastor, or a layperson such as Dr David Allen) to do for those who become addicted to gambling what Dr Colin Archer has done for those addicted to alcohol. Indeed, this is nothing other than the logical consequence of the church’s teaching on Christian stewardship – the proper management of the material, moral and spiritual resources with which each of us have been endowed by the Creator.

Now, gambling is a moral issue on which the various denominations of the church have differing positions. It is submitted, however, that here we have one area in which they may be united. Certainly, all Christians can unite in teaching on Christian stewardship and the exercise of a ministry of compassion to those who find themselves victims of gambling addiction. There is common ground for research on the root causes of gambling and, on the same positive note, co-operation in exercising a ministry of compassion to toward those who fall prey to gambling for temperance, self-control under the constraint of the spirit, it is a cardinal Christian virtue (Gal. 5:16-22).

Many years ago, Bishop Simeon Hall delivered a stirring sermon on the essential role of the Church in society based on the powerful, profound text, “There Remains Much Land to be Possessed” (Joshua 13:1). This text is most relevant to the church’s mission in this “post referendum era”. For its responsibility, as a spiritual marathon requiring the endeavours of all its members in dealing with this perpetual “burning issue”.

This is utterly essential at this crucial juncture in our development as a people precisely because “The Love of Christ leaves us no choice!” (2 Cor. 5:14).


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