By / Oct 24

Recently the Mega Millions lottery jackpot was $1.6 billion. Prior to the drawing on Tuesday, anyone who played had a roughly 1 in 292,000,000 chance of winning. Ludicrously slim odds. So slim, according to one mathematician, if someone were to place a penny somewhere on a football field and then blindfolded you and asked you to place a penny in the exact same place, you would be 15 times more likely to place your penny on the penny already on the field. Like I said, astonishing odds.

But the human race is full of irrational optimists. Some who have never even played a lottery in their life will cave to the intrigue of winning that record-setting pot. The “just maybe” appeal is irresistible.

Gambling has enriched no one’s life. The promise of unearned reward preys on what appears to be an insatiable human penchant for risk and suspense. Even its winners are really losers. Its appeal is won only through elaborate and sinister deceptions. Those who gamble on a regular basis never come remotely close to breaking even. Even those who win big end up losing. Approximately three in four jackpot winners file for bankruptcy within five years. So, it comes as no surprise that many who win big and then lose it all look back on their time of sudden wealth with tragic regret.

Most moral appraisals of gambling tend to focus on the relative irresponsibility or impudence of lotto players, but I want to offer a different claim. The culpability for the perils of the lottery system lays more so on the state authorities who knowingly allow for gambling programs to exploit the poor. State-sponsored gambling is, statistically speaking, a de facto poor tax. It is continued only because lawmakers cannot bear to make harder fiscal decisions to raise taxes or cut programs.

According to a 2012 study, a full 61 percent of all lottery players are from the bottom fifth socio-economic bracket. The majority of lottery tickets are purchased in low income neighborhoods. Approximately 1 in 5 Americans believe winning the lottery is the only way to secure significant savings or retirement. This is not to suggest, of course, that those in higher socio-economic brackets do not play lottery—around 40 percent do. However, higher earners tend to have more expendable income and likewise do not plan their financial future around the prospect of winning the lottery. State officials have been aware of this socio-economic disparity for quite some time.

This sort of targeted exploitation of the poor is directly condemned in Scripture. “Protect the person who is being cheated from the one who is cheating him,” warns the prophet Jeremiah (22:3). And a similar imperative is given in Proverbs: “Don’t take advantage of the poor just because you can (22:22a), for whoever oppresses a poor man insults his maker “(14:31). Elsewhere in Proverbs, the imperative is put with chilling directness, “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered” (21:13). And it is in light of these, and still other forceful commands, that we must take John’s question with absolute seriousness: “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him” (1 John 3:17)?

The church, therefore, must object to the lottery system’s deliberate exploitation of the poor. There are better, more equitable means of raising revenues for state budgets. Whether the poor would gamble anyway is irrelevant. The poor would not be encouraged to take defeating personal risks as they are currently if there was no state-sanctioned lottery. Crucially, the poor would not be speculating on lottery cards in the first place if they were not poor, and thus the cunning of the lottery system is cast in even starker relief: its legitimacy as a program depends entirely on perpetuating acute poverty. In other words, although the stated purpose of state-sponsored lottery is to enrich lucky winners, the actual purpose is expropriation. Lottery promises the poor a golden ladder out of poverty but always at the cost of further poverty.

I do not suppose to speak for the whole of Christ’s church, but with what little force I myself can lend to the claim, I wish to call for the abolition of all state-sanctioned gambling. I realize the near-futility of doing so. State budgets are now greatly dependent on lottery revenues. I get it. But this is an obvious case of the means not justifying the ends, just as it is an obvious case of rejecting God’s command to care for the poor. Authorities must own to the fact that state-sponsored gambling was designed to oppress the poor through cunning expropriation. As a result, I call for abolition of state-sponsored gambling not because I think it is likely, but because God has made known his heart for the poor. And one day, all of us will give an account.

By / Nov 13

Hello, this is Russell Moore, and this is Questions and Ethics, the program where we gather together and talk about your moral dilemmas and try to look at them through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And we have this week a letter from Matt, who says, “Dr. Moore, I am about to become a band dad for the first time,” and I am assuming what he means by that is that he has a kid who is about the join the high school marching band. “One of the fundraisers our high school band uses is raffle tickets. There are limited numbers of tickets available, and it’s a winner-take-all pot for the winning raffle ticket. Tickets are sold for ten dollars apiece, and the prize pot is five thousand to ten thousand dollars.”

Wow! Ten thousand dollars for a high school band raffle! Okay, I am just kind of impressed by that.

“My concern is that every member of the marching band is required to participate in the fundraisers which include selling these raffle tickets. There is a buyout provision where our child won’t have to sell the tickets.”

I hope it’s not a ten thousand dollar buyout.

“I don’t see,” he says, “how this is any different than gambling or a lottery, and how should I as a Christian respond to forms of gambling like this that are for a good cause?”

Now, Matt, when I read this letter that you sent, I immediately thought about my grandmother because I remember one time we had some sort of a fundraiser—I don’t know if it was for Boy Scouts or what it was—but it was one of these raffle deals, and I went to my grandmother to sell the ticket, and her immediate response was to say no. And I was really surprised because my grandmother would do anything for me then and now, frankly. But she said I will do anything. I will give you whatever you need, but I’m not going to buy that raffle ticket because she said that to her that was a form of gambling.

Now, let’s step back for a minute and ask why is it that we are opposed to gambling? Well, there are several reasons. One of them is that gambling is something that teaches that money is something that can be obtained through chance rather than through work. It denigrates the work ethic.

More importantly, with gambling, what we have is a predation upon the poor. And so state-sponsored gambling—and frankly, not just state-sponsored but industrialized gambling that we see in the casino industries all over the country—it uses the illusion of winning in order to take money away from the poor. That is one of the reasons why the people hardest hit in any given community are those who become addicted to gambling. Any community with a casino industry has gambling addiction. As a pastor I dealt with that back in my hometown. I remember one family we went to visit, and there was only lawn furniture in the family’s apartment because the husband had become addicted to gambling and had sold off everything, all the furniture, in order to pay for his habit. Lotteries are essentially a super-regressive tax upon poor people who are desperate to get out of poverty with this manipulative illusory means to get out of it.

Now, when we talk about this issue that you are talking about with a raffle, I suppose that one would have to ask is this the sort of thing where people who are already giving to a good cause are given a prize that is chosen at random, at which point I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with that. If you say, for instance, we are going to have an event tonight, and everybody who comes has the opportunity to win a prize of this clock or this iPad or whatever it is that we are giving away that night, I don’t really see that as a gambling event. I really don’t see that as a raffle—I see that as people who are already participating who are winning a prize.

But having said that, I can see why somebody would, and somebody who has a conscientious objection to even the appearance of gambling ought not to participate. I think that one’s conscience ought to hold with its integrity even if you and I might have different levels of scruples about what that is.

You are probably thinking this raffle is going to teach some things to your high schooler that you don’t want to teach about gambling, about work ethic, about all of those things. I understand that. You are probably also not wanting to teach things to your high schooler that would teach a sense of quarrelsomeness with objecting to this in the wrong way. I sense this from the way that you are very carefully laying out your argument here. So, what I would suggest to you is that you find a way here—I think there are several ways—where your conscience is clear, the teaching that you are wanting to give to your high schooler is clear, and you are supportive of what you see as a good cause which is supporting the band. I think there are a number of ways that you can do that.

I am not sure what this buyout option is that you have with the raffle, but I think one of the things that you could do is to say we are going to give to the band, and we are going to encourage people to give to the band without taking a ticket. We are just going to give, and we are going to ask everybody let’s give, and if you have moral objections to this raffle, and you say but we believe this is a good cause, then you may say let’s all of us who have these objections let’s give even more than what people who don’t have to this band.

Or you may say we are going to buy these tickets, but we are going to commit that we are not going to take whatever the pot of money is if we win it; instead, we are going to donate that right back to the band.

I think find a way to think through how can we support this good cause without violating your conscience here, and at the same time, also do so with that Romans 12–14 understanding of not judging people who differ with you on a point of conscience here.

And frankly, that would work either way. I would say the same thing if the person were writing to me saying we’ve got this one stick-in-the-mud guy here, he’s not wanting to sell raffles for the band. I would say you need to bear with the consciences of another. And so, teaching your child how to stand with the principle and conscience in the way you define it, while also teaching your child how not to be pharisaical about that, is an important lesson to be taught.

I am someone who sometimes I don’t follow that through very effectively because children— sometimes it depends on the personality of your child, and your adolescent sometimes can be very black and white. And so, certain things that we don’t do in our household I have to work really hard to make sure that my children don’t automatically assume that those families that do participate in those things are awful people, you know? And that is an important lesson and an important conversation to have—we in our family aren’t going to participate in this because Dad has a moral objection to it. I think that there are some issues here that might lead to some bad things. But without the kind of turn the table over, thus sayeth the Lord which doesn’t really apply to something as low level as a band raffle.

Alright, what’s your question? Maybe you are wrestling through something that is going on in your workplace or your high school or your family or your church, and you are not sure how to think about it or how to carry out your convictions there. Well, send me an email, [email protected], and we will take it up when we gather next for Questions and Ethics. This is Russell Moore.