Illegal Gambling in The Bahamas

October 2012

 

A Pastoral Reflection 

 

Given the extensive engagement of Bahamians in illegal gaming, as entrepreneurs and players and the government’s decision to hold a country-wide referendum on the issue, it is clear that we are confronting a situation that has led to a crisis of national import. That the numbers business flourishes and expands yearly is evidence that there are those among us who are openly pursuing an activity that contravenes the law. It is obvious too that Bahamians have been doing so for generations without any lasting, effective intervention by the forces of law and order.

I believe that we are also confronting a cultural crisis. Bahamians now appear to be guided by views and practices, such as illegal gambling, that negate many of the values that we should hold dear, such as planning, hard work, saving, managing personal resources responsibly and making reasoned decisions about the use of our time and priorities. Also sidelined is the wisdom of delaying gratification in support of a greater good and dedicating our creativity and our energy to those things that promote good for oneself, family and community.

With a behaviour so deeply entrenched as playing numbers seems to be, it is vital that we approach it through reasoned conversation. What is especially important, the solutions we propose must also be founded on truth and reason above else. The purpose of this communication is two-fold.  First of all, it is a further contribution to the national conversation on decriminalizing the numbers business for Bahamian operators of gaming business and their patrons. Secondly, it presents a reflection on the need to bring about a more beneficial relationship between the Church and the culture.

As I did in my first statement on the gambling issue (23 May, 2010), I must emphasize that games of chance, in themselves, do not constitute an evil. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes: “Games of chance or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice.” (CCC 2413) It bears repeating also that it is on this basis that there is a well-known practice of utilizing various games of chance, in particular raffles, as a staple feature of parish fundraising and of similar efforts by a range of local charitable organizations.

However, the Catechism goes on to make it abundantly clear that games of chance can lead to evil. It notes that such activities “become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs or for those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement.” (CCC 2413). In other words, while games of chance in and of themselves are not evil, habitual gambling can lead to a number of evils.

The truth of the latter statement is clear when many Bahamians spend days sitting before computers in web shops, at work or at home for the slim chance of winning a fortune that will help them to rise above their troubles. That many of those who wager on games of chance are often single, unemployed mothers gives rise to further concern. Such activities are wrong for both women and men, if they play numbers to the neglect of their homes and families, their jobs, their personal and civic responsibilities. This is the real problem.

No matter how small your income, it is far better to save regularly than to gamble regularly.

Gambling in excess has a great potential for generating intemperate behavior and for many, addictions. It is from intemperance and addiction that many societal ills arise.  Therein lies the real danger of permitting gaming that is an unregulated, free-for-all.  It is our duty to take whatever measures lie in our power to help Bahamians avoid the potential and dangerous pitfalls of gaming or any activity that could lead to harm for the individual or society.

To craft worthwhile responses to our national challenges, we must begin with honest assessment. We must seek good information about all our country’s challenges, as opposed to making unsubstantiated decisions that lead to even greater problems. In the case at hand, for example, we need to go into the referendum knowing what happens in the web shops. How specifically are they contravening the present law? Can the present law, as it now stands, be enforced? How many Bahamians frequent these establishments to play games of chance? Who are they? How much do they spend per day, per week, per year? Is it disposable income, or does the spending contribute to domestic challenges in terms of stressing family relations or finances?

Is it, or is it not, time to change the law in order to effectively regulate a behaviour which is illegal, lawless, longstanding and unregulated.  This activity continues boldly and publicly without apparent regard and respect for or fear of the current law?  What would be the nature of the proposed law intended to regulate the illegal lottery.  Surely we deserve to be assured by public authority that the law will be enforced regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

As best we can, we must be informed of the facts. This is the most productive course of action.  Otherwise a referendum becomes an empty exercise.  Armed with statistics, our decisions or commitments regarding local gambling become more defensible. This is the kind of democratic action that accords well with a Christian perspective. After all, faith is the friend of reason.

It is urgent for our people to understand that this permissive attitude towards the so-call “small sins” strikes at the heart of what we understand as democracy and order. We must obviously find and attack the roots of the problem of persistent lawlessness in our country. It could be that selfishness has been placed on the throne of all too many Bahamian minds and hearts. I believe that we are experiencing the dire symptoms of a cultural-moral disease, which took root with the spread of a well-defined and often noted sense of entitlement. Everyone owes you, but you owe nothing—not to family, not to neighbors, not to employer, not to government, not to society at large.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal of the riots that took place in London and several other English cities in 2011, Lord Jonathan Sacks pointed to what could be very instructive for us in The Bahamas at this time:

This was the bursting of a dam of potential trouble that had been building for years. The collapse of families and communities leaves in its wake unsocialized young people...[who are the products of] a tsunami of wishful thinking that washed across the West, saying that you can have sex without the responsibility of marriage, children without the responsibility of parenthood, social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality, and self-esteem without the responsibility of work and earned achievement.[1]

Lord Sacks has also said, "People were persuaded that you could spend more than you earn, incur debt at unprecedented levels, and consume the world's resources without thinking about who will pay the bill and when."  Sacks saw this behavior as the outcome of a "culture of the free lunch in a world where there are no free lunches."

Surely, this has been and continues to be the same in The Bahamas.

Let us now look at how this all applies to the rapid growth of the illegal numbers business. First of all, we must acknowledge that many Bahamians nowadays are playing the numbers, some, perhaps, out of desperation. They mistakenly look to gaming for the miracle or “luck” to rescue them from certain deep and persistent gaps in their lives. This is especially the case for those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, who are sorely tried by poverty, joblessness and a lack of marketable skills. Unfortunately, when people come to believe in the ‘easy solutions’, such as winning at numbers, the virtues of planning, hard work, saving, personal discipline and various forms of community cooperation that can lead to more lasting solutions are undermined.

We must also consider that the fear of the consequences of law-breaking may keep some people on the straight and narrow, but not all. In this country there is a growing and widespread contempt for law with an accompanying rise in illegal behavior. As the daily news reports show, rising criminality is eating away at Bahamian society and economy. Sadly, the moral character that sustains respect for the law and provides the basis for order is not generated by the law. If the law could create morality, prisons around the world would not be overcrowded.

Nothing demonstrates more convincingly the failure of law to prevent harmful excess, addiction and outright crime than the current debate on illegal gambling in this country. Despite the fact that there have been laws against gambling since The Bahamas was a British colony, the numbers business flourished for generations as an immensely lucrative underground enterprise. Now, in the 21st century it mushrooms boldly and even more lucratively through technology-heavy ‘web shops’, which are pretty much left to carry on with little interference from the forces of law and order.  It has now spread to many of the Family Islands.  And, sadly, if the numbers business is driven underground again, Bahamians will continue to patronize such operations.

            Does this mean that we must abandon law? Not at all!           

The rule of law is an essential element of the framework for the order on which our democracy rests, but it must have the support of two other elements for greatest effectiveness in maintaining a vibrant democracy.  We are informed that the deeper taproots of our civilization lie in cultural soil nurtured by the interaction of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome.[2] In this case, Jerusalem represents biblical religion, which taught us that our lives, rooted in God, are a purposeful journey into the future and not simply a random, meaningless series of events. Athens represents Greek rationality, which taught us that there are truths in the world, which are embedded in us and cannot be gainsaid or escaped. Rome taught us that the rule of law is superior to brute force.  The bottom line is this: democracy, as initially conceived, loses its anchor and direction when we abandon the God of our faith, the virtue of reason and the discipline of law.

Again it has been noted that it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make democracy and the free economy work properly. People of that kind do not just happen. They must be formed in the habits of heart and mind, the virtues that will enable them to guide the machinery of free politics and free economics, so that the net outcome is human flourishing and the promotion of the common good.[3] If the culture into which a person is born and raised does not support reasoned thinking and moral values, it becomes a fearsome battle to adopt and sustain virtuous behavior.

The Pontifical Council on Culture (1999) spoke of a split between the Gospel and culture and called it “the drama of our time.” The council clarified this statement pointing to a “blatant religious indifference” and an, “all-embracing hedonistic materialism”, which are marginalizing the faith.[4]

As Pope John Paul II indicated, our best chance for improving the present grave situation lies in the “evangelization of the culture”. In the 21st century the Church is called to lead Bahamians back from the secularism that gives the central role to and creates a dependence on things material and causes a loss of contact with the transcendental aspects of human life; that is truth, beauty and goodness.

 “In a pastoral approach to culture, what is at stake is for human beings to be restored in fullness to having been created in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:26), tearing them away from the anthropocentric temptation of considering themselves independent from the Creator.”[5]  Our job in the present crisis must then be the identification of values and counter-values in the culture, so as to build on the former and vigorously combat the latter. In brief, we must meet people where they are, using the best means to communicate the good news of the Gospel to them.

It is clear that we have reached a point in our national development where we seem less and less able to nurture and form citizens capable of moral and economic responsibility in both their personal and public lives. We must change this picture or be prepared to face the enormous social consequences. 

As Lord Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, much can and must be done by governments, but they cannot of themselves change lives. It needs another change agent “Governments cannot make marriages or turn feckless individuals into responsible citizens. That needs another kind of change agent…

We should note that to “deny that securing civil virtue is a benefit of religion is blindness.”[6] At the same time: “To propose that securing civil virtue is the purpose of religion is blasphemous.” This is an especially valuable reflection for all who are called to spread the gospel of Christ. We must remember who has called us to the work and what the true focus of our vocation is.

Changing the damaging social and cultural climate must be a matter for profound concern and urgent action and there is much that we can and should do. The religious community must occupy a position at the forefront of reasoned commentary on the subject of the numbers business and all behavior, which contravenes the laws of The Bahamas, presents an affront to morality or endanger the wellbeing of our people. By our vocation and commitment, we are obliged to present a more comprehensive and truthful view of the social ills plaguing The Bahamas. We must remember that the doctrine of free will to choose is central to Christianity. It is our urgent and necessary role to inform, educate and provide appropriate models, so that our people can make informed and well-reasoned choices.

Christians must be encouraged to seek a deeper knowledge of the Scriptures and the doctrines of their faith and avoid the pitfalls of interpretations to serve selfish and unproductive interests. We must teach respect for law, self and neighbor and cultivate in those we lead the strength to choose according to the precepts of our faith and conscience. Through spiritual guidance and education, we can promote the building of moral fiber and character. We can thus raise up a people of virtue, who can resist temptation and make right and beneficial choices. Where a core of virtuous persons is lacking, democracy cannot flourish.

I must emphasize too that the religious community does not hold exclusive rights to or solely bear responsibility for perceiving and proposing solutions to the evils of our society. It will take a cooperative effort to turn the red tide that is swallowing up our peace in this country. I call on all Bahamians of goodwill, especially parents, pastors, civic leaders and members of Government to suppress ego, desires for self-aggrandizement and partisan biases to join hands to bring moral and civic training to the forefront of our cultural, religious and educational agendas. It is the moral and civic obligation of all citizens.

As I have said many times before in public dialogue and private conversation, the primary upholders of the law are not the police, the courts or the prisons, but ordinary citizens acting in their proper civic demeanor.

We Bahamians are fast approaching our half century of Independence. It is important to examine where we, as individuals and as a people, where we find ourselves today and what new journeys and changes we must undertake to fit us for tomorrow. It is my hope that we will engage the journey with reason, collaboratively and prayerfully as befits a nation that claims democracy and Christianity, so that we may dwell in peace and our commonwealth may flourish.

May God Bless the people and The Commonwealth of The Bahamas!

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[2] George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/cultr/documents/rc_pc_pc-cultr_doc_03061999_pastoral_en.html

[5] http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/cultr/documents/rc_pc_pc-cultr_doc_03061999_pastoral_en.html

[6] “Evangelicals and Catholics”, produced by Charles Colson and John Richard Neuhaus.