Sunday, 1 July 2007

Gambling , Quakers and me

In our Meeting today at the monthly business meeting, a concern arose for us to endorse. This was about gambling. The meeting was unable to endorse it with strong opinions on both sides of the issue emerging. It was left to seek more context from the proposer before it was discussed again.

Gambling is a live issue in the UK because of the Lottery. A national body in England, called Quaker Social Action has decided that they will seek Lottery funds much to the consternation of many Friends. British Quakers have to grapple with most funds that deal with creative, social and heritage measures are funded by the Lottery. To say no is to be marginalized. Hence stand by the principle of no gains from gambling and our buildings crumble, our social programs dwindle and imaginative outreach work flickers.

At the time when Friends where inching towards this decision, I was responsible in drawing down nearly three million pounds from the Lottery as start-up funds for over 100 childcare businesses in areas of disadvantage and so had a powerful impact on reducing child poverty. The childcare enables women to access or remand in work and the levels of women income is one of the key factors on being in or out of poverty

Anyway back to the business meeting…incidentally, this was the first Quaker Business Meeting that I have attended for some 3 years and the first at this Meeting. I did so because of the importance of attending business meeting was raised in Robin’s Blog… What Canst Thou Say? And it reminded me why it was important to do so. We can often escape in the silence of the Meeting but in business meeting, we have to deal that we have different views and work these through. It also means accepting responsibility for each other and for the life of the meeting. I am minded that early Quakers didn’t get rid of the priest, they got rid of the congregation!

But back to gambling, this is where I stand:

Firstly, I think on the scale of problems that we need to tackle such as global poverty, stewardship of the environment, Middle East justice, etc, mean that gambling and drinking are way down at the bottom for me. They feel like part of our Puritanical past, not our spirit lead future.

Secondly for me, like many issues a balance has to be struck between the harmless enjoyments of the many with the detrimental effects on the few. I think it a perfectly valid moral position to be a non-gambler in the same way of being teetotal, or vegan. But once in the sphere of social and political policy rather then as an individual moral stance it’s the language of regulation rather then bans or sin for me.

To explore this further, let’s try and define gambling. A useful starting point is

a wager or bet in which each player agrees to risk losing some material possession to other players in exchange for the chance to win the possessions of other players without compensation to the loser, the winner(s) and loser(s) being determined by the outcome of a game.
The first problem for me is that it’s both too broad and too narrow. It’s too broad because it conflates what I would call organised gambling that I would want regulated with social gambling which I would not.

Charity and church-sponsored bingo, raffles, etc.

Bazaar and fair booths where you pay to spin a wheel and try to win a prize, etc.

Amateur gambling including poker games for money, office pools, matching quarters for cokes or coffee, playing marbles for keeps. Also included are some athletic leagues where winners are not just awarded a trophy or plaque, but players put money into a "kitty" then play to try to win some of the money.
Casino gambling: slot machines, roulette wheels, dice and card games, numbers games, etc., played for stakes.



And it’s too narrow as this definition wants to exclude stock market speculation and the operation of the market in general from the “sin” of gambling. Do it as an individual, “bad”, do it as a corporation “good”. Yet what is the difference between putting in a 100 and making it 1000 by taking the risk that prices will rise before you sell, and putting a 100 on at 10-1 and risk the horse not coming first?

This blind spot to institutional gambling and making profits without working for it was not always so. For many centuries, making profits on money was seen as sinful. Around 1620, according to the theologian Ruston, 'usury passed from being an offence against public morality, which a Christian government was expected to suppress, to being a matter of private conscience, and a new generation of Christian moralists redefined usury as excessive interest'. One of the major problems facing many developing countries is crippling loan debt. Is this less important then being pure about gambling?

This mention of having to work for it is one of the roots of the opposition to gambling. The Protestant work ethic argues that gambling encourages feckless behaviour and expecting something for nothing. Yet behind this work ethic was a desire to prove that one was chosen by what you had in the world. And as a consequence the poor and needy were punished with the poor house and working class attempts to improve their lots with Trade Unions and access to Democracy was bitterly resisted.

Another line of argument is that that it distracts from Sabbath observation which and so with singing and dancing they were banned by Puritans in the 17th. This was part of the rejection of music, theatre, and enjoyment of nature that Quakers have gradually moved way from other the centuries. Do we put respect the Sabbath and its narrowness above these creative activities? Is a game of family cards with prizes so sinful?

A third line was that any game of chance "prostituted divine providence to unworthy ends. But why would Quakers have religious practices based on a Transcended, all powerful God?

A fourth line is that gambling is based on greed and covetousness. For example it is easy for a camel to pass through the eye of a needed then for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Or Ephesians 5:5-7; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 - Those who covet will not receive the kingdom of God, but God's wrath abides on them. Yet isn’t greed and covetousness the basis of capitalism? So for me I read these and other passages (such as the love of money is the root of evil) to argue for economic and social justice rather then individual condemnation. Likewise the argument that we are stewards of the world, which should be used for God’s glory this leads me to a concern with environmental justice rather then a condemnation of gambling.

In short, I would be happy to relegate institutional gambling and make it responsible for funding support for gambling addiction. I would support any campaign to make it less “sexy” but for me it not a priority as many of the Scriptural sources for anti-gambling is for me about justice and compassion and not sin. Do we have Quakers have a passion for Social Justice or do we act as Anglicans’ in the early to mid 20th century

‘Christianity and Social Order’, by William Temple:

“The claim of the Christian church to make its voice heard in matters of politics
and economics is very widely resented, even by those who are Christian in personal belief and devotional practice. It is commonly assumed that religion is one department of life, like art or science, and that it is playing the part of the busy-body when it lays down principles for the guidance of other departments, whether art and science or business and politics. …… few people read much history. In an age when it is tacitly assumed that the church is concerned with another world than this, and in this with nothing but individual conduct as bearing on prospects in that other world, hardly anyone ever reads the history of the church in its exercise of political influence. It is assumed the church exercises little influence and aught to exercise none; it is further assumed that this assumption is self evident andhas always been made by reasonable men. { I might add women}. As a matter of fact it is entirely modern and extremely questionable.”


Anonymous said...

Dear Friend,
I've read your post twice. Gambling is a live issue here in New Mexico also. The state runs a lottery with about 30% of the take going for college scholarships. Indians run casinos with the profits going for improved housing etc.
Worthwhile, like your child care project?
I say not. Here, at least, legal gambling takes money from the poor and with much fanfare give sback a small amount. It's seldom the rich who gamble here. It's mostly the poor who buy a few hours of hope with a lottery ticket, and who pump coins into slot machines in the tawdry, dreary, false glamour of the casinos.
Imagine a world without gambling. Wouldn't it be a better world?
You can stay clear of gambling. Secular thought says you'll be marginalized, but God has better ideas for you.
Sincerely, Alison P. Martinez

Alan Paxton said...

There's no doubt that, since it started (in 1994 or thereabouts), the National Lottery has poured forth rivers of money for the kind of deserving arts and community projects that suffered so much in the Thatcherite eighties. I would hesitate therefore to criticise your secular project for drawing down its lottery millions and putting them to good use empowering marginalised people.

But I will be saddened if Quakers take lottery money, for in doing so they will lose an important part of their Christian testimony. Here's Quaker Faith & Practice (the book of discipline of Britain Yearly Meeting) in a passage dating from the 1950s, arguing that "The persistent appeal to covetousness" evident in gambling publicity (in those days it was football pools) "is fundamentally opposed to the unselfishness which was taught by Jesus Christ and the New Testament as a whole." (QF&P 20:61; see also Luke 12:15, Hebrews 13:5). The passage goes on to say that "the attempt to make a profit out of the inevitable loss and possible suffering of others" is "inseparable from gambling" and the opposite of loving one's neighbour.

It's clear to me from the above that Quakers, and many other Christians, oppose gambling not because they are clinging to an antiquated Puritan taboo, but as an expression of deeper principles which should also lead us to condemn the acquisitiveness, exploitation and unsustainability of capitalist growth economics.

Of course Quakers have all too often descended into middle-class humbug, condemning the lower orders for idling and gambling while themselves being far too busy speculating and bean-counting to go to the races or otherwise enjoy themselves.

But Quakers also threw up their prophets, such as John Woolman, who condemned covetousness in all its forms and called us to a simpler, less destructive and more generous way of living.

I find it revealing that William Cobbett, that great defender of the liberties of the English working people (and denouncer of what he saw as the hypocrisy of the Quaker bankers and grain speculators of his age), criticised gaming in very similar terms to those of Quaker Faith & Practice: "The basis of it is covetousness, a desire to take from others something, for which you have given, and intend to give, no equivalent." (Advice to Young Men, 1830)

Anonymous said...

I think that gambling is just a mean way to fool poor desperate uneducated people into thinking they can be rich.

It preys on people's weaknesses, and makes people think they shouldn't have to support themselves, that they deserve win a lot of money and never have to work again.

It's totally unethical. Imagine if we asked everyone to give pound a week to a national fund for charities, but without the incentive of a big money prize. People would think you were daft - but it's just that kind of mentality we need to foster.

I think it's criminal to exploit people's mindless base greed in they way gambling does.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy gambling online and in land-based casinos. I see know problem with opening more casinos.

Squirelmaster said...

I realy feel for the gamblers in the US. I cant beleive your Congress banned all banks and credit card companies from accepting transactions from online gambling sites which makes you unable to play online poker. What a bunch of hypocrites your state government are. They have the largest gambling operations with lotto, keno, etc. If they truly believed their rhetoric about internet gambling they would cut out the state operations also. And now they are bringing in a law to legalise slot machines. Personally I would have a big grudge against any party that stopped me from playing on a online poker site. I think there must be some way for you guys to get around this problem. Must make you wonder if you are living in the land of the free when it seems the government has full control on what it will and wont let you do.

Anonymous said...

I love to have a little gamble online, however iv found that casino games like roulette and blackjack are over really fast and if I lose I feel a bit mugged off its happened so fast! So I decided to start playing online bingo games in particular I use littlewoods bingo it has loads of games not just bingo and a really good tea break area which has great articles!

Peter Schweiger said...

I have two personal expienernces of gambling which have shaped my opinion on gambling. The first when I was 8 years old and took a coin collector with me to a village fete. It had my pocket money saved up over many months. There was a stall for Bowling for a pig" I had a go and did moderately well, then another and did even better, so that at that point I had won. However I could not leave it and thought I could improve my score, so I just kept on until I had used up all the coins in my saver. Someone else later beat my score. I then realised I had got greedy and stupid.
The other expierence was when many years later I employed a bookeeper who stole from my firm. The police found that he was a compulsive gambler at a London casino.

My view is that raffles, lottery, even interest from Premium bonds should be regarded as a donation. If you do not expect a return you will not be dissapointed. It is when people get addicted by the greed that the harm is cased by gambling.