“Who Are The Problem Gamblers?”

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
1st October 2011

Tagged: covetousness gambling society

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Recently ‘the Church’ has been criticised for not speaking out on the Federal legislation aimed to help problem gamblers cope with poker machines. It’s strange how ‘the Church’ is not to speak into the public forum unless it’s going to say what its critics want to hear.

While all churches are concerned for the welfare of society and, in particular, the vulnerable problem gamblers and their families, there is no agreement concerning gambling itself. Life is complex and the best way of minimizing harm is very difficult. Churches and denominations are not perfect in their desire to help society any more than clubs and hotels are only evil. Some denominations believe in, and are funded by, the proceeds of gambling. Some are generally opposed to gambling though they see the odd raffle as harmless. Others are opposed to any and every form of gambling.

The Bible does not discuss gambling per se, but the tenth commandment on covetousness makes gambling impossible for those who would follow God’s law. The problem with gambling is not taking risks (life always involves risk taking), but the unloving action of desiring other peoples’ wealth and seeking to ‘win’ it from them. Some activities, like being adventurous in business or making a profit from our labour, may or may not involve covetousness – but gambling always does, as covetousness is the raison d’être of the activity. My lack of love or my desire to gain other peoples’ wealth is not excused by their similar consent to enter a game of loveless greed. That the game is played impersonally through machines or by large institutions such as lotteries, again makes no difference to my sinful desire for other peoples’ wealth.

Denominations and churches that actively accept gambling are in a difficult position in opposing gambling in clubs and hotels. They can share in the condemnation of not caring for problem gamblers but critical questions will be asked about their contribution to problem gamblers.

Because Bible based churches oppose all forms of gambling, we are not given much air-time in the media, for our opinion on controlling problem gambling would be simply to abandon gambling completely – something our society refuses to contemplate.

However, opposing gambling absolutely, does not mean that prohibition is the only option. It is only sensible to attend to symptoms even if we are unable to address the disease that causes them.

The symptoms of the disease have been very well documented over the last decade. There are a large number of people who are addicted to gambling, in particular to the poker machines which are designed to captivate the unwary.  The results for these people and their families are devastating and the recovery programmes cannot keep pace with, or solve the problems. Evidence is now being advanced to show that loan sharking has been used to enslave some of these unfortunate addicts to a life of crime especially associated with the illicit drug industry.

Any mechanism that will help protect the problem gambler has to be welcomed by those who wish to minimize the damage that is being done to individuals and society.  Whether the particular mechanism that is being proposed will help has yet to be seen, but the vigour with which the clubs and hotels are opposing it suggests that it will be effective. That it comes by way of a political compromise and exercise in power grabbing does not nullify the possible effectiveness or benefit of the measure. It is just a shame that the government has to be held to ransom, before it will do something for the good of our society.

Addicts by nature are in denial. They will assure anybody who asks, that they haven’t got the problem and if they have then it is harmless; they could give up if they wanted to, and anyway it helps them deal with other aspects of their life. They certainly don’t want anybody to help them, especially in any programme that will inconvenience their present independence, life style or addictive behaviour.

This description of addictive behaviour fits not only the individual addict but also the clubs and society at large. For the professional sporting bodies, hotels, clubs and governments have all become addicted to poker machines and gambling proceeds. Their denials and arguments are the same as any addict. Their blindness to moral argument is breath-taking. The argument about all the good they do to society with the money taken from poor addicts is pathetic. If these things were so good we should raise taxes fairly to provide them, rather than stealing the money from the weak, the poor and the vulnerable. The amount of money they spend in community welfare is dwarfed by the amounts they take from the unfortunate - and line their own pockets with – to say nothing of the good public relations that this ‘community welfare’ buys them.

Forcing addicts, like the government and clubs as well as the gamblers, to act differently will not solve their addiction, but can reduce some of the pain and suffering their addiction causes to themselves and others. The legislation under discussion will not solve the problem, because it is only addressing one symptom of a deep seated disease.

The problem is not ‘problem gamblers’ or poker machines. The problem is not even gambling. The problem is covetousness and that cannot be solved by legislation. 

Covetousness is the idolatry of materialism. A society that turns its back on eternal truth, and seeks to live by secularism or atheism, will not address the idolatry of materialism. People may decry greed and the empty shallowness of materialism, but economic materialism is just the fruit of philosophical materialism. Without God there is no reason to live for anything other than possessions and pleasure. So only by the exercise of crass political power will the society concede to such a small and uncertain step in harm-minimization. It’s a bandaid on a cancer but better a bandaid than an open sore.