Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Ben & Gambling: The Latest Scrooge

In what we might term fundamentalist morality, gambling is considered a sin. Ben Witherington has done a post in which he buys into this prim ethical tradition.

“It may not be on the medieval list of the seven deadly sins, but we should have realized that since Jesus and the NT has plenty to say about and against 'the love of money', gambling was likely to surface at some point as one of the major besetting sins of a culture with too much discretionary income.”

To say the love of money is at the heart of gambling is simple-minded. In games of skill like poker or horseracing, the competitive aspect is part of the appeal.

There is also the psychological attraction of risk-taking.

I’d add that both of these are masculine traits.

“The rich get richer, and those least able to afford it, the poor and working class, turn to scratch off tickets trying to win the lottery so they can 'get ahead' in life.”

Are the rich getting richer? Adjusted for inflation and the income tax (which didn’t exist back then), is Bill Gates richer than the Vanderbilts or Louis XIV or Lorenzo de Medici?

Also, is it only poor people who gamble? When was the last time Witherington took a look at the parking lot of Monte Carlo?

If poor people can afford to drive a Rolls Royce or Lamborghini, then we’d all do well to be so poor. Put me on the immigration list!

BTW, I don’t gamble. I’ve never been to Vegas or Reno or Atlantic City.

I have been to Monte Carlo, but I was only ten at the time, so I hope my youthful indiscretions won’t be held against me.

I do agree with Witherington that it’s generally those who can least afford it who gamble. But that’s not inherent to gambling.

“But what is wrong with a little betting at the office pool or buying a lottery ticket? What is wrong with going to a casino and having a little fun? After all-- it is 'our' money isn't it? Well in truth there are a whole cluster of problems with gambling from a Biblical point of view of which I only have time to list a few.”

Notice how he jumbles a whole lot of things together.

There is, to begin with, a basic distinction between games of chance, like Roulette or slot-machines, and games of skill, like poker and horseracing. I agree that feeding money into a one-armed bandit is a waste of time and money, but games of skill are a little different, aren’t they?

It is intrinsically evil for buddies to play a friendly hand of poker around the kitchen table over beer and pretzels?

“Firstly let us deal with the basic Biblical notion that "a workman is worthy of his hire". This principle found in the OT and reiterated in the NT by both Jesus and Paul and others stresses not only that work is good, but that proper compensation for the work is appropriate, indeed a moral requirement of a just society. The principle behind gambling not only severs the connection between work and proper remuneration, but in fact encourages a flagrant disregard for such a work ethic.”

“The idea behind gambling is of course that I invest only a little of my time and capital in hopes of a return that is out of all proportion to the investment, indeed could in no way be justified as a 'fair or just return' for the investment. Put in colloquial terms it is an attempt to gain a lot, by investing or doing very little. In short, it is a form of cheating which demeans honest hard work. It is always and everywhere a form of cheating, even when it is done out of desperation in order to try and survive. “

This is incredibly stupid. To begin with, the Biblical principle is that you deserve nothing less than a living wage, not that it’s immoral to make more than a living wage.

If Witherington thinks that scraping by on a subsistence income is a biblical principle, then why does he fret over the plight of the poor?

In addition, a basic principle of business is to turn a profit. To make something above and beyond your initial investment. That’s the incentive for going into business in the first place.

“One of the more moving films of the past year which I watched again last night is Cinderella Man.”

You mean, Prof. Witherington spends time and money going to see the movies, or renting them, or buying them?

Sounds like he has too much discretionary income. Perhaps he’d like to share it with me.

“The second problem with gambling is that according to the Bible, a Christian person is not supposed to charge, nor receive benefit from ridiculous and egregious or exorbitant interest rates. But in fact gambling operates on the principle of in effect charging people in general way more than they can afford to pay, in order that a few people can be inordinately 'rewarded' for their investment, and I do mean a tiny minority of people.”

There’s a grain of truth to this. A lottery is a classic pyramid scheme.

On the other hand, people do win the lottery, so it is not inherently irrational to invest a little money, even if the odds are stacked against you, just in case you get lucky.

“I have not seen the latest figures, but if you view gambling as a form of investing, then it is clear that over 90% of all the participants are getting ripped off on a regular basis. For a Christian to participate in such a system is to violate what God's Word…”

Again, it’s a basic principle of investing that you assume a lower risk for a lower payoff, and a higher risk for a higher payoff. How is that immoral?

“But these problems are minor compared to the major one that "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof". Every Christian should know that 'their' money is in fact not something they 'own'. They are actually only stewards of God's money and God's resources. In a world full of worthy causes, to gamble with the money you make is in fact to take food out of the mouths of the poor, and indeed may well be to take food out of the mouths of your own family! It is inexcusably self-centered behavior, too often grounded not in desperation, but in a desire to 'get something for next to nothing' which is neither an honorable nor a Christian affection, desire or longing. It is incompatible with the Christian character as described under the heading of the fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5. That acquistive desire, or desire for securing one's own future by hook or crook is incompatible with a self-sacrificial temperament.”

Once again, there’s a grain of truth to this, but mixed in with a boatload of bunk.

Is in inexcusably self-centered for a few school kids to bet their Twinkies on a game of marbles?

One wonders if Witherington wears his hair in a bun and patrols the classroom with a metal-edged ruler.

There is, in addition, a very serious question of how Christians should spend their money—a question which Witherington, with his limousine liberal posturing, disregards in order to dash off these feel-good sentiments.

Should we only make what we need? Should we only spend what we need? Nothing above the bare necessities of life? Cold oatmeal for breakfast? Gruel for supper, plus a stale crust of bread, washed down with tap water?

What, about, say, patronizing the arts? Is that taking food out of the mouths of starving children? If it is, should we boycott the arts?

Should we adopt a Third-World standard of living? How does Witherington live? Does he make more than the janitor who cleans his office at night? Does he have a computer? A cellphone? Indoor plumbing?

Down he own classical CDs? A DVD player?

He seems to be quite the jet-setter. Wouldn’t a donkey be cheaper? Also help to fertilize his vegetable garden.

Aside from the fact that he’s typecast as the morally blind moralist, there is a genuine question as to what Christians with discretionary income should do with their money.

Suppose, for example, that everyone were rich. In that event, would it be okay to live in a house like the Breakers or Hearst Castle? Would it be okay to own a Rolex, or a four-hundred foot yacht?

I’d say no, and it has nothing to do with class warfare. There is a difference between enjoying the goods things of God’s own making (2 Tim 4:4), and sheer ostentation. Some luxuries are pure status symbols. That would be a sin. That’s what we mean by materialism. Conspicuous consumption.

In addition, should Christians who are well off feel guilty about the plight of poor Christians around the world? Or the poor in general, Christian or not?

There’s a danger, here, of assuming a God-like responsibility for the state of the world. If I’m an American Christian, I’m likely to be far better off than a Christian living in Calcutta.

And who is responsible for that disparity? Well, God is. God is responsible for who is born when and where. I shouldn’t be guilt-ridden about my good fortune.

No, it should make us thankful. It should induce gratitude, not guilt.

And it should also foster in me a sense of noblesse oblige. Like Abraham, I should use my blessings to bless others. Show mercy as one to whom mercy has been shown.

“There is furthermore of course the pragmatic issue that gambling is habit-forming even with people who have some degree of self-discipline.”

That’s true, but you could say the same thing about drinking. Yet Scripture also celebrates wine’s capacity to gladden the heart (Ps 104:15), in a Psalm dedicated to the enjoyment of God’s natural bounty.

“Suddenly one's brain sees red and thinks--- "you can get something for nothing, and if you can, you ought to."

Gambling is not about getting something for nothing. Gambling is a calculated risk.

“Americans are suckers for all kinds of get rich quick schemes, it's just that gambling is an endemic form of it.”

This is a racist statement. Are Americans more prone to get rich quick schemes than any other people-group?

“Even worse is when the church itself promotes one or another form of gambling (e.g. Wednesday night bingo) in order to pay its own bills.”

I agree with Witherington that the church should not be in the business of organized gambling.

“The Bible is perfectly clear that since everything belongs to God Christians should be giving sacrificially to the cause of Christ, which in many cases will mean well beyond a tithe. Jesus calls his followers to heed the example of the widow who gave all her monetary assets to the Temple treasury.”

Does Witherington heed this example? Has he liquidated all his assets and given the proceeds to the church?

It’s tedious to have men like Witherington and Wright to spout Marxist rhetoric while they wallow in a Western standard of living. Have they no shame?

If every Christian were to impoverish himself, would this benefit the church over the long-haul?

“In fact however, America is one of the least tithing 'Christian' countries on earth. It's absolutely disgraceful.”

To begin with, I don’t know his standard of comparison. Is France a more tithing country? Or England? Or Switzerland? Or Italy?

Also, it would be nice to see him make an exegetical case for the duty to tithe.

“And beneath and below the surface of all of this there is the deep amnesia that God, after all, has all the resources in the world and beyond in his hands. There is absolutely no reason or justifable cause for Christians to compromise their ethics to get 'ahead' in life, as if they could not turn to God and the body of Christ and get assistance. God's bank never runs short and if we ask according to the will of God (praying for things that are necessities such as are listed in the Lord's prayer, not unnecessary luxuries which we are not encouraged to ask for)God will indeed do more than we expect.”

Well, if God’s bank never runs out, then why does Witherington assume that the rich get richer at the expense of the poor? Why does he assume that gambling takes money out of the mouths of the poor and needy?

Sometimes is does. Oftentimes.

But Witherington acts as if there’s a fixed amount of money to go around, so if you have more, that must mean someone else has less. Your gain is his loss. Whatever you have comes out of a generally kitty.

“Gambling is an act of despair by those who either never trusted God or have given up doing so.”

This is another half-truth. What about the professional gambler? Take a poker player who makes a living off his earnings. For him, it’s his livelihood, like competitive sports.

“One of the things that has most depressed me of late is seeing my beloved home state, North Carolina, after having fought the good fight against a state lottery for so long, finally capitulate to this sinful enterprise, expedited by political trickery.”

Again, I agree with him about state lotteries.

But in his back-patting effort to play Robin Hood on the cheap, Witherington passes up a number of opportunities to explore the core concerns.

What’s the social impact of a casino culture on Indian reservations? What would happen if Las Vegas became the model of the American dream?

But the deeper issues get lost in Witherington’s prissy legalism and radical chic ignorance of rudimentary economics.

Like other pink evangelicals, Witherington is more concerned with feeling good than doing good. It’s just like the Kennedys who propose lavish social programs—funded by the middle-class—to assuage the guilty conscience of their own opulent lifestyle.


  1. An argument could be made that gambling involves illegitimate gain, i.e., there is no exchange of goods or services involved. The winner profits off of the loser, and the loser receives nothing in return—an indirect form of theivery?

  2. I'm not interested in making a case for gambling, per se, just debunking bad arguments. But it's like any venture capital risk. Yes, the winner profits off the loser, who receives nothing in return, but the loser had a chance to win and thereby maximize a minimal investment.

    And, unlike thievery, it's consensual.

  3. Isn't the better argument to say whether doing it glorifies God? That is to say, in the carrying out of the activity by that particular person, is God honored by it? I would take your previous mentioning of drinking alcohol. As the Bible indicates, it is not (as some of those in Methodist circles would like to argue) wrong for people, in principle, to drink it. However, the Bible clearly warns against drunkenness, or drinking to excess so that it goes beyond the concept of moderation.

    Gambling is an interesting issue, for sure, and hanging out with friends and having a friendly poker night and that same person going to a casino could be two different things. However, a caution would be not letting our brother stumble (this is not legalistic, but simply a command to maintain the body of Christ).

    I too find it ironic that our state allows "charitable" gambling and the lottery, but doesn't allow other forms of gambling (as in poker), where the person's chance of winning is actually better! (though I too would not endorse gambling in this way)

    Just my two cents.

  4. I enjoyed your post Steve, and generally find it to be right on the money. (pun intended). As for the comments regarding winner profiting from the loser, whether or not the loser receives anything depends on his motivation for participating.

    Many people gamble for entertainment. For the same reason other people go to movies, buy books, buy video games, etc. Does the fact that money is a potential additional good received make it inherently sinful?

    The loser, if he is not in it purely for the opportunity to "get rich" gains from it entertainment. Just like the man who goes to watch a movie. Sometimes it's more enjoyable (when he wins/when the movie is good) sometimes it's less (when he loses/when the movie is poor). Given that, you could almost point to going to see movies as gambling. You pay $7 to gamble on whether you're about to waste 2 hours of your life or not.

    I appreciated that you touched on his obvious marxist tendancies, and on the weakness of his appproach being the fallacy of assuming a closed system of economics. That for one to gain, another has to lose money. In gambling specifically, that is obviously the case, but that's the only place, and it's consentual, as you noted.

    However, Ben attempted to expand that to life in general. That simply having more and spending it would take money from the poor. This is not a supportable argument. This is basic economics. Unfortunately, the bogus keynesian economics is still proffered in public schools as if it had some basis in reality.

  5. Much appreciate you, Steve. A few comments:

    --This is a racist statement. Are Americans more prone to get rich quick schemes than any other people-group?
    >>"American" is not a "race." I'm having a hard time thinking of what would be a better word, though. "Ethnocentric"? "Nation-centric"? "Self-loathing"?

    --I agree with Witherington that the church should not be in the business of organized gambling.
    >>Could you add a quick comment explaining why not?
    I ask b/c you've spent quite a bit of time on this post explaining how gambling is not necessarily a bad thing. How bad could it be, then, if the church uses it to draw people in for evangelism? I'm just asking.

    BW-- “In fact however, America is one of the least tithing 'Christian' countries on earth."
    --To begin with, I don’t know his standard of comparison. Is France a more tithing country?
    >>Indeed, and what is a "'Christian' country"? Zambia? Wales after one of its famous great revivals? Certainly not modern America!

    --But Witherington acts as if there’s a fixed amount of money to go around, so if you have more, that must mean someone else has less. Your gain is his loss. Whatever you have comes out of a generally kitty.
    >>I wrote this and then read Shamgar's comment. I'll just leave what I wrote and thanks Shamgar for putting it better than I did.

    Normally, Marxist class-rhetoric tries to make this point about economics in general - if one person is rich b/c they succeeded in business then that means someone else is poorer b/c of it, when that is of course false.
    However, in gambling, how is money created? It's not an economic activity - money only changes hands; it does not grow.
    Is his point not valid, looking at it that way?

  6. "I ask b/c you've spent quite a bit of time on this post explaining how gambling is not necessarily a bad thing. How bad could it be, then, if the church uses it to draw people in for evangelism? I'm just asking."

    Gambling is generally a form of recreational entertainment. That's not the mission of the church.

    "However, in gambling, how is money created? It's not an economic activity - money only changes hands; it does not grow."

    Well, casinos are certainly profitable--although that's not the sort of gambling I'd care to defend.

    A lot of what goes on in investment banking is just money changing hands.

    But to the extent, thought, that gambling is a form of recreation or entertainment, it doesn't have to turn a profit. It's just a form of play for grownups.