Gambling: Vice or Virtue?

Published on 3rd May 2016

The spotlight has lately been on media personality Julie Gichuru; sparked off by #KOT who questioned her morality following her entry into the now very lucrative gambling business in Kenya. It is alleged she is the owner of mCHEZA gambling site. The divide in the raging debate on gambling raises the question: Is gambling moral or immoral?

We shall adopt understanding that moral means standards of actions, behavior, practice or beliefs that are acceptable to the concerned and immoral shall mean not conforming to accepted standards. These standards can be derived from various sources including self, society, law, culture, and religion. In Kenya, our morality standards are largely product of religious and cultural beliefs.

While the gambling enterprise is fast becoming normal in our country, it hasn’t always been prevalent. Until the 90s, gambling was considered a “vice,” along with prostitution, illegal drugs and pornography.

According to law enforcement, the term “vice” is often considered an inherently immoral activity, often accompanied by depraved, harmful behavior.  And of course a “vice” is the opposite of a “virtue.”

For a country that brags being ‘notoriously’ religious, the recent explosion of gambling enterprise may well be the most underrated dimension of our country’s morality crisis. That many people have a laissez-faire attitude towards gambling portends a worrisome and contradictory moral position to Christian standards.

According to most Christian scholars, the entire enterprise of gambling is opposed to the moral worldview revealed in God’s Word. They argue unequivocally that the basic impulse behind gambling is greed; a basic sin of greed that seeds and spawns many other evils.

In the Bible, the stewardship of material possessions is a crucial issue of discipleship. The same book is very categorical that its faithful are to sweat for their livelihood and wealth. And at the same time, a Christian is to understand that his possessions including money are not his own, but God’s.  It means Christians are just trustees permitted to enjoy God’s property, and they shall be judged for the quality of their stewardship. In the debate on morality of gambling, this Biblical view of material wealth raises a tough question: how shall a Christian account our stewardship of Lottery tickets, Lotto, Bonyeza, mCHEZA etc?

Further, the Bible is categorical that Christians shall not and must not exploit the poor person. It is apparent that the majority of the “believers” in the possibility of gambling fortunes are the poor. So many have sunk into further poverty after they sunk their entire earning, savings etc on, or even borrowed to use for, betting, hoping for the universe to conspire in their favor.

There is no doubt that gambling depends entirely on chance, for which the chief “virtue” is luck. However, for a Christians, their worldview affirms active sovereignty of God over all events, persons and time, and thus, there is no place for luck. How do we then explain penchant for the luck enterprise even among Christians? Is it the case that a Christian can trust in God in the vain hope of winning lottery number or a favorable roll of the dice?

According to Holy Scriptures, God’s nature is rooted in love and truth. It is sacrificial and others-centered. He is dedicated to service, not exploitation. He warns against idle hands, ill-gotten riches and malicious or deceitful men.  On the other hand, gambling is rooted in greed and deception. It is self-serving and thrives on luring one in with false hope and taking one’s money. How are Christians to reconcile their conception of God and notions about gambling?

The Catholics take a qualified position on the morality of gambling, but majority of Christian sects especially the Methodists, Presbyterians, Assemblies of God, Anglicans, and Baptists, are very categorical in their opposition to gambling. Catholics oppose gambling when involvement in it takes away money meant for other essentials such as food, school fees, medicine. This is a rather weak stand, considering that Catholic has very radical take on other morality issues such as abortion, homosexuality etc.

In 1950, Presbyterians in a no nonsense statement described gambling as "an unchristian attempt to get something for nothing or at another's expense” and in 1992, they vigorously petitioned civic and government leaders to resist state-sponsored gambling.

The Assemblies of God opposes gambling, calling it “an artificial and contrived risk taken for selfish gain at another’s expense.” A statement from the denomination’s Commission on Doctrinal Purity and the Executive Presbytery reads: “A careful study of the Scriptures indicates that gambling is a form of evil that the Christian seeking to live by scriptural principles should avoid.”

While the Methodists are known for being moderate on many controversial issues, gambling is an exception, they are very categorical.  In The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church - 2012,   “The United Methodist Church opposes gambling in any form. Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice.” The state goes on to urge: “The Church should promote standards and personal lifestyles that would make unnecessary and undesirable the resort to commercial gambling-including public lotteries-as a recreation, as an escape, or as a means of producing public revenue or funds for support of charities or government.”

Further, they argue that “Gambling, as a means of acquiring material gain by chance and at the neighbor's expense, is a menace to personal character and social morality. Gambling fosters greed and stimulates the fatalistic faith in chance. Organized and commercial gambling is a threat to business, breeds crime and poverty, and is destructive to the interests of good government. It encourages the belief that work is unimportant, that money can solve all our problems, and that greed is the norm for achievement. It serves as a ‘regressive tax’ on those with lower income. In summary, gambling is bad economics; gambling is bad public policy; and gambling does not improve the quality of life”.

In conclusion, it is important to underscore that gambling provides jobs and income for many people that work in the gambling industries.
The jobs keep away many individuals from harmful activities and the income feeds and schools children; and can be a very positive thing to families that rely on these jobs. It also generates taxes for government to invest in public goods, and sometimes gambling enterprises sponsor or get involved in charity outreach.  So, from a utilitarian view gambling is good.

However, the intellectual, theological and moral position advanced by Christians in protestation against the gambling enterprise is very forceful, rational and progressive. The church’s argument that gambling brings much more harm to a society than the benefits it generates cannot be ignored. No doubt gambling stifles interest in meaningful and productive labor that would then accrue to an individual material wealth in return for developing society. It largely targets the poorest segments of the population and its promise for quick money leads to individual taking irrational risks. The hyped testimonies of the ‘lucky winners’ are very enticing, and lead to terrible addiction. On top of distracting individuals from productive labor, the addiction and its consequent irrational use of money is as dangerous and threat to lives, marriages, families, and increases societal breakdown.

Apart from the fact that gambling contradicts Christian scriptures and notion of God, Christian scholars have very rational and defendable arguments for a sustainable and universal productive behavior and material worldview that contributes towards building society. Gains from gambling cannot teach us any virtues. It is some form of corruption of the means of production. It denigrates the value of labor towards good life. It places irrational value on material wealth. No people would wish that theirs was a gambling society. It follows that no collectivity of Christian(s) would wish for a flourishing gambling society. Therefore, we must concede that is immoral, and if, Ms Gichuru is a Bible believing and practicing Christian and at the same time the owner of one flourishing gambling business, then her faith and conscience must struggle against church condemnation that gambling is a “vice” and “an unchristian attempt to get something for nothing.”

By George Nyongesa
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