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Thinking Out Loud

When is risk immoral?

by User Not Found | Jul 05, 2011
This blog post was guest-written by Marian McClure Taylor.

“Risk is its own reward,” proclaimed a billboard seeking casino customers from among travelers entering Louisville, Kentucky.

The billboard’s message about risk reminded me of an article by the Calvin College Professor of Economics John Tiemstra, entitled "Financial Crisis and the Culture of Risk" (Perspectives, May 2009; ReformedWorld, January 2009). Tiemstra traces how risk went from “being a morally fraught but unavoidable problem of human existence to being a commodity traded on markets like wheat or copper.”  One of the most important landmarks on that journey, he says, was the spread of casino gambling.

Many mainline denominations give scarce attention to gambling, and I have never heard a sermon on it. Here are a few of the key moments in my awakening on this issue.

In 1981, I interviewed a famous Haitian in Port-au-Prince who met me at a casino. After playing some slot machines, it turned out that lucre really is filthy, so I went to wash up. I can still feel my shame as I tipped a poor bathroom attendant for the towel I needed to wash money grime from my hands. Humans have a need to play, but it was shocking to juxtapose my ability to play with money with this woman’s dire need for money. This up-close moment is writ very large in the growing disparities of our economy today.

Then there was an administrative assistant who worked for me some years later. I lost her after she had problems with the “work release” program she was serving due to her having written bad checks to feed her gambling habit. In the release program, she was allowed to work at my office, then go say goodnight to her six children and return to jail for the night. Her exploration of risk’s potential rewards harmed her children. In fact, no one takes risk without drawing someone else into that risk. And as Tiemstra wrote, “The Christian would not try to lay risk off onto others for whom we are supposed to show love.”

Now I serve the Kentucky Council of Churches. The Council struggles against the expansion of casino gambling out of concern for gamblers’ families and for people whose addictions make them hear that siren call, “Risk is its own reward.” The Council policy also states concerns about the casino gambling industry fostering greed, harming local economies, and increasing crime.

These localized effects of the casino sector are bad enough. But the latest global economic meltdown showed that our national slide into being a casino culture hurts us all. Financial sector efforts to manage risk failed and will fail again barring adequate regulation, because the sector has lost its prudential moorings. Letting the financial sector behave like a large casino has devastating consequences for God’s beloved children.

Professor Tiemstra asks that preachers address why gambling is against God’s will. Some might call us moralistic fuddy-duddies. But that is a risk worth taking!

Marian McClure Taylor, Louisville Seminary alumna (MDiv ’95), is Executive Director of the Kentucky Council of Churches and also served as director of World Missions for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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