The Powerball Lottery: What’s at Stake?

  |   January 8, 2016   |  

The Powerball lottery is in the news yet again. Its $700 million jackpot, a record, has captured the attention of millions of Americans hoping to have the right ticket and an instant fortune. The Powerball—along with innumerable other government-funded lotteries—has virtually become an American institution, a “harmless game” that “fuels imagination.” But the reality is that, regardless of who wins the Powerball, it is the poorest in our communities that are guaranteed to lose.

According to one estimate, Americans spend over $70 billion each year on lottery tickets. That’s more than people in the U.S. spend on sporting events, movies, books, and music—combined. This staggering amount of revenue owes to many factors, and one of the most important factors is the conscious targeting of low-income families and communities. Casinos and lotteries are marketed directly to those people who most feel compelled to get more money quickly, and therefore, have less hesitancy to spending part—or all—of their income trying to do so.

It’s not hard to see that gambling is a form of economic predation. Gambling grinds the faces of the poor into the ground. It benefits multinational corporations while oppressing the lower classes with illusory promises of wealth, and with (typically) low-wage, transitory jobs that simultaneously destroy every other economic engine of a local community. In the end, lotteries cease and casinos leave. Every time, the millions of people who have lost their “investment” are left behind to the wreckage of “check-to-cash” loan sharks, pawn shops, prostitution, and 1-2-3 divorce courts.

State-sponsored gambling is a social injustice, since it seeks to use covetousness and addiction to separate people from their means of living. The power of gambling lies in a vision of the “good life.” This illusion is co-opted by the gambling industry, but it isn’t created by it; rather, it’s created by us, our own communities, and even our churches, fueled by our fallen desires and vision of easy gain.

The gospel is the key to disarming this illusion of “the good life” in our own hearts and in the hearts of our neighbors. What motivates our desire for quick, easy, wealth (as opposed to a healthy desire for the things we need, like food and clothing) is the idea that “we only live once,” and that whatever we can gain in this life is what ultimately defines us: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.”

But this is a radically un-Christian idea. The gospel of the kingdom is the announcement that all who are in Christ will receive the universe with him (Rom. 4:13). The gospel is good news to the poor precisely because the poor will inherit the kingdom, not just in a “spiritual” sense but in a quite literal sense. In this way, the gospel upends our vision of the good life. The good life ceases to be about a 9-figure jackpot and begins to be about pouring out our lives and possessions for others. If we believe we’ll reign with Christ over the world, we won’t clutch at our lottery tickets like they’re our only hope for a happy life. The gospel of the Powerball says that the lucky will inherit the earth, but the gospel of Christ says the poor in spirit will (Matt. 5:3).

Let’s oppose state-empowered gambling, but let’s do so while loving the poor the industry seeks to devour. Let’s work toward rebuilding families, honoring honest labor, and encouraging the flourishing of communities in which the impoverished are not invisible. And let’s hold out a vision, for all of us, of an inheritance that comes not through predation, and not through luck, but through sonship, through grace.