jonathan stone's blog

. . . posts on faith and life

let justice roll: the lottery

When I was in college I liked to gamble (in more ways than one). Quite often several of my friends and I would gather together in order to play cards for money. It was not unusual to lose $60, $80, or $100. Nor was it unusual for the ‘big winner’ of the night to take home twice that. On more than one occasion I was the ‘big winner,’ but refused to take all of the money. In these cases one of the ‘big losers’ of the night had no business losing that much money. Being a friend who recognized this (and being a bit of a ‘softy’ too), I would tell my friend to keep his money and not to come back when he was gambling with rent funds.

I recognized that it would be unjust to take my friend’s money. Granted, he had a responsibility to make the right choice, and he should have never been there in the first place. Nonetheless, I could not take his money. This is the problem with casinos. They give us the impression that we are ‘playing against the house,’ that we are taking ‘the house money’ if we win. However, if you’ve ever spent much time in a casino you will recognize that the money you are taking in a win is not really ‘house money,’ but money that ‘the house’ took from people who should have never been there in the first place, people who came gambling with money that they actually could not afford to lose. It’s this broader societal perspective that makes casinos unjust, not the individual choice to entertain oneself at a $5 Blackjack table.

Likewise, we have a similar dynamic with state lotteries. Anyone who has stepped inside of a gas station can recognize that the majority of people playing the lottery are exactly the same people who can least afford to play the stupid game. By and large, it’s not middle and upper class Americans, who can afford ‘to blow’ a few bucks on a game that has worse odds than being struck by lightning, that are putting in the major portion of the millions of dollars that accumulate in any given jackpot. Rather, it’s individuals who actually need the money they are wasting. Often they are dropping $20, $30, and $40 on multiple tickets that will never bring any returns.

States justify this practice by using the money generated by lotteries to fund education. I work in a public school in the state of Georgia, a state that has been a pioneer in this practice. Indeed, it makes a difference. There are many great programs and many valuable resources that have been poured into public education in Georgia because of the state lottery. However, this practice sounds and looks better at first glance than it does after close inspection. Certainly some underprivileged individuals have bettered their lives from things like the Hope Scholarship. But the overall dynamics have created another injustice.

While Georgia has advanced its public education in many ways it has done little to improve it’s low ranking (49th out of 50 is almost as low as you can go) Graduation Rate and Dropout Rate (which are two separate calculations). Studies (like this one) have shown that the students that are most likely to dropout of school and/or least likely to pursue post-secondary education are typically marked by certain characteristics such as: reduced lunch (being below the poverty line), high transience, and a lack of education in the family (which leads to a lack of value placed on education and a lack of conversation in the home about possibilities in education). In turn, children from these homes lack the cultural capital required to succeed in school (a lack of trust towards schools, teachers, and administrators, a lack of knowing the expectations in education, a lack of ‘speaking the language’ of education, etc.).

This same socio-economic group is providing the overwhelming majority of funds that go into the lottery. It’s from their misspent money that we are putting new computers, expensive test prep software, digital projectors, and impressive interactive boards into our schools, and in some cases every single classroom in a particular school. These are great tools in the hands of teachers. However, the people who are funding these resources are the same persons whose children are not succeeding in school despite all of the new gadgets. Ironically, it’s mostly the middle and upper class students, whose parents are not playing the lottery anyway, that are benefiting from these resources.

When I talk with other Christians about this or similar dynamics one response I often hear is along the lines of, “They’re making their choice. It’s too bad that people make bad choices. But what can you do?” Yet, the same Christians are often passionate about being actively involved in trying to take back the right to make certain other choices like having an abortion. (While the issue of abortion deserves a whole separate discussion, I will interject that I have seen firsthand how devastating this choice can be, but also recognize that it is highly unlikely that this individual choice will ever be taken back from Americans). I think that our indifference to this issue represents a hypocrisy on our part. We say that we are ‘for life.’ Yet we do often do little to ‘right wrongs’ that are hindering life among living, marginalized members of our society (not to mention our often inconsistent stances on war, capital punishment, etc.). I wonder what other wrongs we are guilty of not trying to right?

7 comments on “let justice roll: the lottery

  1. Don
    April 15, 2008

    In all fairness, many state legislators who oppose abortion also opposed the lottery. That was certainly the case in Tennessee (and that included our church people as well.)

    There’s no question that the lottery is a very regressive form of taxation. That only adds to the tragedy of the situation.

  2. jason
    April 15, 2008


    exactly! There are many areas where christians make decisions that are directly in oppostition to what they “believe”. I dont know if this is always blatent hypocrisy or if it is from a lack of awareness. Just like you pointed out the circle in some familes where lack of education can breed a lack of appreciation for education, I think there is a lack of awareness or ability to connect Sunday morning teaching to Monday morning actions.

  3. Emily
    April 15, 2008


    Do you think that one root of this issue is the old “circle up the wagons” mentality that so influences our culture? When the pioneers would sense danger they would circle the wagons, facing inward so as to gear up for any confrontation with impending attacks.

    Sometimes I sense this going on in our lives (mine included!). There is pervasive fear in our society. We are afraid of anything that can endanger our children’s development and future. So we “circle the wagons” and face inward towards our community of choice (typically other middle class, or for others, upper class americans). We sense at some level that the danger lurks at us from those poorer places in society so in our “circling” we circle in towards each other and away from the “others.” (couldn’t resist getting in a LOST reference!)

    Our focus is on surviving (just like in LOST! Wow, the theological themes in that show are amazing! LOL!). As long as we are afraid and “circled up” we believe we can survive, and perhaps thrive, but our ability to reach out and be missional to others is greatly hindered.

    I think education is a great example of this dynamic. I agree with Don. I believe that there probably is some consistency between the legislators who oppose abortion and those who oppose the lottery.

    However, I would contend that in education matters at large we tend to “circle up the wagons.” We want our children in the best school district with the most money. The idea of sharing superfluous money of one district with the poorer neighboring district is a novel idea. To do so would be to open up the “circle” a bit and that is dangerous and scary.

    After all, the people in the neighboring, poorer, school districts have made their choices, right? They have chosen to live lives the way that they do. That isn’t my fault. I hate it for them, but I want my children in the best school with the most money. I have made my choices and I want to be rewarded for them.

    Isn’t christianity all about making the right choices? Starting with the choice to follow Christ?

    Ok, some of that was playing devil’s advocate! I am interested in this dialogue. I want to see what others have to say. I think it is very important that we wrestle with these issues so that our theological convictions are lived out consistently with our behavior and “choices” in the world and with how we interact with the world. I agree with Jason: “there is a lack of awareness or ability to connect Sunday morning teaching to Monday morning actions.”

    I also ask: “What do our Sunday morning teachings have to say about these issues?” I will be the first to admit that as a parishioner I desperately need help, teaching, direction, and empowerment to know HOW to live out some of these very important issues in my own world. What does it mean to live out mercy? How does mercy, grace, and love impact our political and education ideas and choices?

  4. Emily
    April 15, 2008

    One idea that is woven into the American value system is the old adage “pull yourself up by your own boot straps.” Personally, I perfer to live by this adage. It is uncomfortable and messy and awkward to have someone help you. It is easier and more comfortable to be able to “pull youself up.”

    However, in my line of work I see people all the time who don’t even have boots…much less the straps…to use to pull themselves up. To tell this person to “pull themselves up” is like telling a toddler to stop eating with their fingers without providing a fork and a spoon first.

    I now realize that I may be taking this post and making some very broad applications that are not related to the original focus! Sorry!

  5. babydoc1030
    April 16, 2008

    I agree with Emily’s thinking that we as Christians have become very inwardly focused and fearful of secular culture to the extent that we have sacrificed our identity with those who are suffering around us.

    I have been reading some of the early writings of a well known child psychologist turned Family Values crusader and have been wondering where it all went wrong. Our desire to protect and nurture our children has allowed us to make the problems of this world only our problem if it threatens us directly. Someone elses poverty, gambling addiction, pornography addiction, and so on are part of the “World” that we think we need protection from instead of the World Christ has suffered for and already redeemed.

    The saddest part of all of this is that it is the children who are suffering the most for their parents’ broken lives. Perhaps the lottery money would be better serving us if more of it went to Early Intervention programs, teen pregnancy prevention, etc. Social advocates were unsuccessful in stopping the Tennessee lottery but we could still fight to make sure the money is being allocated in the most just ways.

  6. Jonathan Stone
    April 21, 2008

    That may be true about many legislatures. However, what I have in mind is the church. In other words, how balanced is our ‘selection of issues’ to stand against. Many passionately speak out about abortion. And indeed, that’s an easier ‘statistic to measure’ than the social impact of the lottery. Nonetheless, I suspect that our inability to get passionate about ‘the poor’ in contrast to our passion for opposing ‘those evil people who support abortion’ says something about our lack of spiritual and theological equilibrium.

    Yes, it could have to do with our lack of awareness. The problem is that we claim extreme awareness. Jesus addressed a similar situation when He said, “If you were blind you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains” (John 9:41).

    Great points! What is scariest about the way we ‘circle up the wagons’ is not only the level of fear (which is essentially unchristian) that it fosters, but also our tendency to then identify anyone ‘outside the camp’ as ‘the enemy.’ This is ironic, since Jesus’ ministry was specifically outside the camp, and it is where we too are called to minister (see Heb. 13:10-16). This has caused the BoC to experience an autoimmune disease, where some cells have failed to identify other cells as ‘part of the self.’ So, they target and attack those cells and ravage the body in the process. Look at the long list of autoimmune diseases and you will see that they always have a debilitating effect on the body, and sometimes lead to premature death.

    Powerful comment! I like your ‘family values’ reference! And I would echo again what I just said in response to Emily.

  7. corum deo vida
    May 7, 2008

    i hate us versus them thinking…esp when it comes to children. i have over the years ministered to my share of kids who live in impoverished areas. and you know…they are just kids. they want hugs and affirmation. they want to grow and be healthy. they want to be loved. they were not evil or less human because their parents did not make as much money as other parents.

    perhaps, we ought to stop thinking of different socio-economic groups as “them”. how in the world do you do this? not sure. i have heard a few suggestions that i like–Shane Claiborne said we should not have low income housing but a low income house on every block that the whole block pitches in to care for. i LOVE that idea. then i am just caring for my neighbor not “those poor people.”
    while we are on the subject of gross abuse of the poor–how about ‘check into cash’ places? this may not sound holy but i get an intense urge to burn those places to the ground every time i drive by one (of course i would do it when no one is inside–does that make it right :)?) or strip clubs? or the sex slave industry as a whole….ahhh don’t get me started.


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This entry was posted on April 15, 2008 by in issues.
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