A theology of casino gambling

Turning bad news for the poor to good news for the poor

Posted Jul 26, 2013

[Diocese of Western Massachusetts] The Bishop’s Office of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts recently issued the following essay on casino gambling. It was developed by the Rt. Rev. Douglas Fisher, the Rev. Chris Carlisle and Steven Abdow.

A Theology of Casino Gambling:

Turning Bad News for the Poor to Good News for the Poor


In Diocesan Convention last October, the clergy and delegates representing our 65 churches voted unanimously to oppose casino gambling in Western Massachusetts. In the months following, many of you have worked faithfully to educate voters as to what casinos really do in communities. That effort included educating me. In the last few weeks I have been interviewed numerous times by television, radio and newspaper reporters.

The very nature of interviews demands “sound bites.” Studies show you get seven seconds to grab the attention of viewers or listeners before they switch channels. My sound bite has been “Jesus came to bring good news to the poor. Casinos are bad news for the poor. I follow Jesus.”

But there is far more to the casino debate than a sound bite. To express the depth of our position,   Steve Abdow and I have worked with the Rev. Chris Carlisle to produce the essay “Theology and Casino Gambling.”

Here you will find a reflection on gambling from the perspective of Holy Scripture. And because our theology is not abstract but “incarnate” (manifested in “the flesh,” in reality), you will see many references as to what casinos have actually done to neighborhoods.

In this essay we sometimes focus on the situation in Springfield. But we hope this reflection will be helpful to those who face possible gambling institutions in West Springfield and Palmer and in many other places within and beyond Massachusetts.

This summer I have been re-reading Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. The “quick fix”—which is no fix at all—is in front of us with the seductive lure of casino gambling. We all want for our cities and neighborhoods. Let us pray for the leadership from our church, government, business and social leaders to make real strides in quality of life for all God’s people.


There is only one story in the Christian gospels that has to do with gambling. And it happens at the death of Jesus. For all the wondrous hope that Jesus inspired in his corner of the Roman Empire – that the poor were not alone, that wealth was not enough, and that life’s riches came by sharing – for three days, Jesus’s death appeared to be the death of a miraculous abundance that was generated not by acts of possession, but by acts of self-giving and sharing.

The Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts has committed itself to a stated mission of “Celebrating God’s Abundance.”  Unlike its often vague connotation, here “abundance” bears a technical meaning: if in the world’s economy, the more one takes, the more one ultimately has, in God’s economy, the more one gives, the more one ultimately has.

In this regard the nature of the material world is different from the nature of God.  In the material world where resources are scarce, one must possess in order to survive.  In the world of God’s abundance, to truly live, what one has must be shared with others.

It should be startling to Christians that the darkest moment of all time should begin with an act of gambling.  Roman soldiers – responsible for Jesus’s death – are described by the gospel writers as gambling for the paltry possessions of a man who literally gave his life for the poor.  “And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.”[1]

The act of casting lots appears seventy-seven times in the Bible.  In its original form, casting lots was a way that communities divined God’s will  – employed for decisions from dividing tribal lands to determining a twelfth disciple.  In order to avoid favoritism or inevitable politics, sticks of varying lengths were chosen by participants to ascertain the mind of God.

Though at first a sacred act in relationship with God, in the hands of these Roman soldiers, casting lots became a sinister, rudimentary form of gambling for personal gain.  Instead of an act performed on behalf of God’s entire people, it became a private bet whose ultimate goal was to take a poor man’s possessions.  Physically powerless and hanging from a cross, Jesus watched an empire turn its back on the chance of an abundant life that he knew would only come by sacrifice.

The story of the casting of lots for Jesus’s clothing illuminates several truths.  First, gambling inherently profanes life as a gift by pretending it can be possessed – perverting the dynamic abundance of God that only comes by relationship.  Here, life is little more than a commodity to be traded and finally “taken,” rather than a sign of the richness of creation that none of us can ever repay.

Second, just as it was two thousand years ago, gambling excludes the poor.  In Springfield, Massachusetts, where a referendum just passed to allow an MGM casino, its ten million dollar ad campaign promoting local jobs is as credible as beating the house.   Most well-paid positions will likely be filled by people from other places, and the construction jobs created to build the casino are by their nature, temporary.

Those lucky enough to secure permanent employment are sure to be disappointed.  On average, card dealers earn $15,810 a year – inadequate to support a family of two in most Massachusetts communities.  Indeed, a family earning this amount is eligible for Food Stamps, WIC, Fuel Assistance, Utility Shutoff Protection, Mass Health, and Section Eight Rental Vouchers.[2]

“Lower taxes” that are claimed to help the poor appear equally illusory.  Statistics show that casino gambling – specifically that facilitated by slots machines – generates its income in undue proportion from the lowest economic classes.  The tax burden is therefore shifted from a relatively more equitable distribution to one in which the already economically deprived are further compromised.[3]

Based on the experience of Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, the 200 million dollar state tax revenue generated in 2007 required that 40,000 people lose an average of $234 every day, 365 days a year.[4]  On the local level, net social benefit is similarly absent.  According to Susan Mendenhall, former Mayor of Ledyard, CT, home to Foxwoods: “The drugs, the guns, the prostitution.  It just follows the money and people don’t want to talk about it.  Our sleepy little town did not have this kind of problem, but it’s everywhere now.  It’s been so painful for us.”[5]

It should thus not be surprising that companies resist locating in “casino cities.”  As important to Springfield as such companies could be, allowing a gambling casino may well be a death knell to an economic future on which its citizens depend.  If it is true that casinos are a proven vacuum cleaner that sucks the life out of the public square, it is those on its margins – especially the poor – that stand to lose the most.

It is argued that at least middle-class shop and restaurant owners benefit from casinos.  Yet this has not been the experience of either local business people or casino owners themselves.  In Atlantic City, one-third of the city’s retail businesses closed within just four years of the casino’s arrival, and the number of independent restaurants dropped from forty-eight to sixteen between the casino’s opening and 1997 – a loss of two-thirds.[6] In the words of current Ledyard, Connecticut Mayor, Wesley Johnson, “There has been no economic development spin-off from the casino.  Businesses do not come here.  Tourists come mainly to gamble.  Gamblers have one thing in mind: get to the casino, win or lose their money, get in their cars, and go home.”[7]

One might expect that casino owners would argue for the economic advantages of casino development.  But according to two of the most powerful casino owners in the country, this is not the case.  Las Vegas-based Steve Wynn said to a group of Connecticut business owners, “Get it straight, there is no reason on earth for any of you to expect for more than one second that just because there are people here at my casino, they are going to run into your store or restaurant or bar.”[8]  And casino magnate Donald Trump observed, “People will spend a tremendous amount of money in casinos, money that they would normally spend on buying a refrigerator or a new car.  Local businesses will suffer because they lose customer dollars to the casinos.”[9]

Many who support a casino in Springfield may well have the city at heart.  The promises of jobs, lower taxes, and funding for public education are in themselves powerful social incentives for MGM’s seductive proposal.  Yet given the long-term implications of investing in such a casino, it is critical the City not take an errant road – however paved with good intentions.

One needn’t look far to find the many dead ends.  The two nearby Connecticut casinos are refinancing their operations due to crushing debt; and because of increased competition from neighboring casinos, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are suffering falling revenues.  Greed begets greed between gambling casinos as much as between their clients – widening a black hole of avarice that now casts a pall across the country.

In Delaware, gambling provided the state its fourth largest source of revenue, enabling the legislature to convincingly allow an aggressive casino expansion.  Yet in the last several months, this same government has had to grant an eight million dollar bail out due to the withering of an industry that is plaguing states across the country.  As will go the industry, so will go the state; hence the plunging revenues are charted to leave a trail of broken promises to such commitments as public education funding.[10]

In a time when cities like Springfield are threatened by economic demise, a final blow to their viability as communities may be the advent of casino gambling.  It would be wise for their citizens to consider the experience of other host towns within five years of introducing casino gambling into their communities: robbery up 138 percent; auto theft up 78 percent; aggravated assault up 91 percent; rape up 21 percent.  These same communities experienced dramatic per capita increases in prostitution, drunk driving, embezzlement, family breakdown, domestic violence, bankruptcy and suicide – all in the midst of enhanced police protection.[11]

Equally unsettling is the potential impact of gambling on these cities’ children.  According to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, “Children of compulsive gamblers are often prone to suffer abuse, as well as neglect, as a result of parental problems or pathological gambling.”[12]  And in the words of Howard Shaffer, Director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Addiction Studies, “We will face, in the next decade or so, more problems with youth gambling than we will face with drug use.”[13]

As former Connecticut Congressman Bob Steele said about casino development: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”[14]  With little evidence of economic benefit to host communities, one is left to recognize a fixed-sum game in which resources are only moved around.  In the view of Nobel Laureate economist, Paul Samuelson, “[Gambling] involves simply sterile transfers of money or goods between individuals, creating no new money or goods.  Although it creates no output, gambling does nevertheless absorb time and resources.  When pursued beyond the limits of recreation, where the main purpose after all is to kill time, gambling subtracts from the national income.”[15]

The casting of lots at the foot of the cross, produced no more than one thieving soldier.  Nothing new was created by the soldier’s winning bet to revive that sad community.  The abundance of God was laid fallow for three days – choked by division and fear.

Then three days later, something happened.  The death of Jesus’s body was suddenly transcended by a resurrecting spirit: of community, of sharing, and unprecedented courage that became the miracle itself.  Jesus’s followers undoubtedly remembered the words of their friend who lost his clothing on a bet: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.”[16]  And they undoubtedly remembered his startling proclamation – “I come to bring good news to the poor” – and were moved, as we can be, to stand with the poor, that together we might live in God’s abundance.

Now that the way has been cleared in Springfield to build a gambling casino, one must hope the Massachusetts Gaming Commission will seek to serve the greater common good.  In every American city and state where gambling is being debated, the wisdom of our recent and our ancient past must be applied in our own time.

While the Episcopal Church stands ready to help those destined for still deeper poverty—those who will be victims of the increased crime, or those introduced to gambling addictions—it would be negligent, if not irresponsible for the Church to avert its eyes from the reality that gambling isn’t good for anyone, and least of all, for the poor.

If most of us suspect casino gambling is indeed too good to be true, we are called as a people—“religious” or not—to bring this truth to light.  If most of us suspect that the cheapness of a bet—for coats or economic solutions—is unable to sustain the abundant life we seek, we need to stand up and be counted.  And if most of us recognize that betting is by nature, a fixed-sum game against the poor, we are called together to be our brothers’ keepers, and to share in God’s miraculous abundance


[1] Mark 15:24, New Revised Standard Version

[16] Luke 3:11, New Revised Standard Version