Every time I return to my hometown, I grumble as I drive down the beachfront. I grew up there on the Gulf of Mexico, and spent my life on those waters, under those stars. Now, however, the place is aglow with neon, as casinos dot the landscape, as far as the eye can see.
I also remember trying to minister there, with so many people addicted to the casino life, throwing their earnings into that vortex.
I’ve spent most of the day today talking with folks about expanded gambling, and I’ll have to admit it’s frustrating to hear how this issue is typically framed among conservative evangelicals.
Gambling isn’t merely a “values” issue. Neither is it primarily a “moral” issue, at least not in terms of what we typically classify as “moral values” issues. It’s a social justice issue.
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, the casinos will leave. And they’ll leave behind a burned-over district with no thriving agricultural, manufacturing, or tourism economies. In the meantime, they leave behind the wreckage of “check-to-cash” loan sharks, pawn shops, prostitution, and 1-2-3 divorce courts.
Conservative Christians can’t talk about gambling, if we don’t see the bigger picture.
First of all, most of the “market” for gambling comes from those in despair, seeking meaning and a future. The most important thing a church can do to undercut the local casino is to preach the gospel. By that I don’t just mean how to get saved (although that’s certainly at the root of it). I mean the awe-filled wonder in the face of the really good news that Jesus is crucified and resurrected, the old dragon is overthrown.
Second, we must understand that gambling is an issue of economic justice. We can’t really address the gambling issue if we ignore the larger issue of poverty. Evangelicals who don’t care (as does Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles) about the poor can’t speak adequately to the gambling issues. By this I don’t simply mean caring about individual poor people but about the way social and political and corporate structures contribute to the misery of the impoverished (James 5:1-6). We will never get to the nub of the gambling issue if we don’t get at a larger vision of poverty and the limits of corporate power.