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Is gambling good?

Would you join in a crowd of people who gather together to lose 10 million dollars a year getting absolutely nothing in return? One would wonder whether there are people naive enough to fall for that or, if there are people who indeed join in such activity, why on earth would they do such a thing?

Strangely, this is what gambling is. Casinos and lotteries are just the joint venture of millions of people who join in to lose money for no proportional benefit. Anyone who sits down to calculate the odds of winning and losing knows that lottery is simply a losing deal. The fact that casinos and lotteries are stupendously profitable and produce no apparent good or service has only one reason: their obscene profit is the gamblers’ loss. In fact, economist call lottery the “stupidity test.”

Ironically, Americans (and certainly not the only ones) spend more in gambling than in all other forms of entertainment combined. The difference is that while in other forms of entertainment, you pay for some kind of satisfaction, in gambling, most people simply lose money with no gain.

Ever since the casinos opened in Singapore, three million visitors have crowded the premises, of which one million were tourists. Simultaneously, Singaporeans have spent 70 millions of dollars only in entrance fees (as of May 2010).

At this point, it all looks like gambling, more than a social or ethical problem is a kind of intelligence deficit problem.  However, we should ask what it is that drives millions of people to gamble and buy lottery.

There is one factor we haven’t mentioned: the hope, slim as it might be, of winning a handsome reward. In fact, it is this possibility alone that gives players the reward they seek. It seems that we are wired to be rewarded while we wait for future benefits. The reward is a chemical. It is called the “happiness hormone” even if it is not really a hormone but a neurotransmitter that the brain produces to make the person feel good while waiting for the delayed gratification. Why Americans buy an average of 150 lottery tickets per person a year, is not only because they statistically hope to win, but because of the very probability of winning, which makes their brains reward them instantly.

It is easy to see why this biological mechanism is a desirable feature of the human make up. Hunting-gatherers need to be steady in hope. Gatherers need to invest lots of time in searching for seeds, roots and bugs. Gatherers need to invest huge amounts of energy and run high risks in pursuing and bringing down prey. All this needs waiting time and a good deal of steadfastness or else one would easily despair and give up all hope of succeeding. What kept hunter-gatherers alive yesterday glues urbanites to computer games and gambling machines today.

We have brains that get excited with the expectations of winning a reward and the game manufacturers it. The key to a popular game is to keep the perfect equilibrium between keeping the expectation (avoiding boredom) and providing satisfaction (avoiding despair).

Gambling is not mere risk-taking, and in that it is different from the risks we take in our everyday decisions. Gambling is or could be considered a form of recreation, and recreation per se is good. St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledged that “just as weariness of the body is dispelled by resting the body, so weariness of the soul must needs be remedied by resting the soul: and the soul’s rest is pleasure,” (Summa theologiae, II-II 168, 2). And, he continues, this pleasure is obtained through games and recreation.

However, Aquinas was very well aware that everything that is pleasurable could turn vicious and addictive when it becomes unreasonable and harmful to the individual. So he acknowledged, that for everyone who engages in games, a special virtue is needed to guarantee a healthy and beneficial use of games. Aristotle called this virtue eutrapelia (Nichomachean Ethics 2 c. 7 # 13). It is certainly not a common word in today’s computer games era, but perhaps it is time to resuscitate the old virtue with new vigor.

Gambling or betting is not intrinsically wrong. That means that it is not wrong in itself, or that one can think of instances in which gambling and betting could be morally not harmful or even a beneficial form of entertainment. Now, something could be not wrong in itself, but be wrong well too often in the real facts of life. And gambling is a good example of that. In fact, casinos largely benefit from the easiness with which people fall victim to the addiction of gambling.

There is a still a more powerful connection between gambling and ethics. Ethics, in its best understanding deals with the fulfillment of the human potential, the art of achieving a good life. Shakespeare make Prospero utter in The Tempest: “we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our life is rounded with sleep.” (The Tempest, Act IV sc.1). As Country singer, David Mallett, put it, “Man is made from dreams and bones.” Dreams and hopes are the stuff human beings are made of.

Hope is meant to draw man onward with confidence in the future and even to the heights of immortality and spiritual encounter. Gambling taps on the power that hoping has within us. Casinos use that power, not to drive people to loftier goals but to retrieve from them monetary profit. The only word that accurately describes that action is exploitation.

Gambling can be just a game; or can ruin entire families. Right and wrong depends on what people make of it. But a realistic approach to gambling should not be oblivious to both the frailty and the loftiness of the human condition. This frailty should never be exploited in the name of business. That loftiness should never be betrayed by playing with our hopes, the very engine that draws us towards our highest destiny.

From Condom Obsession to Sex Humanization

We need to seize the moment. The Pope’s recent comments of condom use present to us an excellent opportunity to learn, to reflect and to expose one of the most misunderstood ethical issues of the church. We must not seize the moment, as often happens, to create confusion or to profit from the sought attention, but for clarification.

The words of the Pope in the book “Light of the World” regarding condom use by a male prostitute do not allow for exceptions regarding the teaching of contraception. They simply land onto a soil of misunderstanding. In a world where the church is viewed as stubbornly and irrationally sticking to an obsession against condoms even in the case of preventing the spread of HIV, the statement of the Pope regarding the special case of a “male prostitute” comes as surprise, even a “liberal” surprise. In fact, to those familiar with the teachings of the church, it is nothing new.

Between the choice of engaging in unprotected or protected sex, a prostitute would do better using a condom than not using it and so the Pope calls this “a first act of responsibility,” “a first step on the road toward a more human sexuality.” This is a choice of conscience, which has no bearings on the teaching of the church regarding contraception among spouses.

The teaching of the church regarding contraception intends to protect something precious, namely, the marital act, from its deterioration. A sexual act against marital love (such as marital rape) or against offspring (such as contraception) cannot be a true marital act but its counterfeit. So the church calls couples to “humanize” their sexuality through the avoidance of a rejection of procreation.

In the same vein, that a prostitute regards condomized sex as a more moral option and whether promoting condoms is a true and effective way to battle the pandemic of HIV are two different issues all together. One is a case of particular conscience, the second a case of public policy.

When safety is at stake, there is no room for compromise. Where fires are serious national hazards, public policies do not teach people how to build “safe fires”; they just prohibit fire-building. Where speeding is a common cause of traffic accidents, governments do not invest in aggressive campaigns to teach citizens how to drive safely at high speeds; they forbid “dangerous” speed. Even in the case of such zero-tolerance approach, fires and speeding happen. They would undoubtedly be rampant if public policies would send a confusing or inconsistent message by encouraging risky behavior. The same applies to the spread of AIDS. The realistic policy is “avoid risky behavior” whether it is engaging in extra-marital sex or sharing hypodermic needles.

Condoms are certainly effective in reducing the contagion of HIV, but should their use be promoted as a remedy against HIV? One thing that we do know about condoms is that they do nothing for people’s chastity. If anything, condoms promote sexual promiscuity by giving a false sense of security against pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, it is the idea of condoms are the solution to unwanted pregnancies and sexual transmitted diseases that is greatly responsible for the de-humanization of sexuality in our societies. The consistent answer to the spread of AIDS is to make sexuality more human.

The church and the Pope are often accused of being obsessed about condoms. If all this turmoil is about condoning condom use, the Pope’s statements in Africa and in the, by now, famous book “Light of the World”  sound contradictory. But, what if it is not about condoms after all? What if the church does not care about condoms but about humanizing sex? Who is really obsessed with condoms? the church or the Press?

What makes for a successful prayer?

Jesus seems to enjoy using examples of bad human behaviour to explain God’s good behaviour. The crafty steward who dealt dubiously with the debtors of his master, the inopportune man who disturbs his friend in the middle of the night, and in today’s gospel (Lk 18:1-8), an unjust judge, all these examples try to bring home the same message: If even bad people can do good things under certain circumstances, how much more will God, who alone is good, be good.

A friend once asked me, should I pray for this, or do you think God is too busy for these small matters? From today’s gospel, we learn that God in fact loves to be disturbed by our prayers. However this prayer should be made in faith. Not in faith that it will be granted, but in faith in God.

The question at the end of the gospel, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” This is what the prayer gives, an increase of faith, even when our prayers are not answered.

Prayer to God presumes faith. Only if we believe not only in God, but in the listening of God, we dare to pray. We don’t pray to inform God of our needs and miseries; we pray to exercise our understanding of a merciful God. The efficacy of our prayers does not lie in getting our way, but in getting into the ways of God. Prayer helps faith and faith informs our prayer of what we truly need to be more adequate instruments of God.

What sustained the consistency of the prayer of the widow was her dire need of self-respect; what sustained the arms of Moses in prayer were the hands of Aaron and Hur. Prayer needs to be sustained. By itself it may succumb to the temptation of despair or self-deprecation (perhaps God is too busy for me). Despair in prayer weakens our image of God.

A successful prayer is not the prayer that is answered according to our will, but the prayer which strengthens our faith.

Disagreeing about homosexual acts in a pluralistic society

Homosexuality is a popular topic. Everybody has an opinion on it. We seem to have exhausted all the arguments. For some, it is unnatural and un-reproductive, and that makes it wrong. For others it is a natural expression of love, with a genuine intention between consenting adults, which brings no harm to anyone, and that makes it right. The final verdict seems to be in the hands of science if  it definitively finds out that homosexuals are somewhat “born that way.”

We find ourselves in this dialectical cul-de-sac simply because there are no right answers to wrong questions. And the issue of homosexuality seems to be the paramount example of the wrong question of our age.

Ethical issues do not depend solely on the nobility of the intentions or the harm caused to others. Indeed, the intention to find a cure for cancer should not justify using humans as guinea pigs; and a murderous intent is immoral and criminal even if it does not harm anyone. Even the “born that way” argument is as futile as defending that stealing would be ethically right if kleptomania was  an inborn decease.

The true question about ethical matters should lie on whether the voluntary act in question harms or helps the person’s own dignity, even if it does not hurt anyone or is done with the best of intentions. So, when it comes to discussing the morality of sexual acts, we may easily find ourselves barking up the wrong tree. So what is the right tree to bark up?

The Enlightenment proposed a dualistic understanding of the human person that has uncritically permeated our culture. According to this dualism, humans are minds using bodies, very much like we use cars or computers to accomplish our intended purposes. In short, we commonly think that we have bodies; but we are not our bodies. Our bodies are something we use, not something we are.

If this is the case, sexuality, being a dimension of the body, is only something instrumental that the mind can use to achieve a specific purpose, and its morality would depend solely on that “purpose”. In the same vein, using a knife is morally neutral, but cooking or murdering with it is ethically relevant. A case in question would be that “oral or anal sex” is ethical if used to express permanent commitment and genuine love, just as the coitus is; while it could be wrong if it is just a lustful act, just as the coitus is. It all depends on the meaning the mind assigns to it.

But what if our bodies are not something we have, but something we are? What if touching the intimacy of the body amounts to touching the intimacy of the person? In fact, common sense knows that rape is not a mere “physical violation” of the body, but a deep violation of the person, precisely because the genitals represents the intimacy of the person. Persons are not “minds trapped in bodies”; persons are bodies as much as they are minds.

If the human body is integral to the person, then the intimacy of the body, namely, the genital dimension, is the intimacy of the person and tampering with it amounts to tampering with the dignity of the persons themselves.

In fact, the human body has its own language with its own semantics that our minds cannot change. Smiles means contentment, hugs mean acceptance, slaps mean rejection… our minds can choose to lie with them or to assign them new meanings foreign to the “original” semantics of the body.

Two individuals could convene that, between themselves, a slap on the face would mean tender care and undivided attention. It would be extremely strange or even ridiculous, but not necessarily unethical precisely because they are just tampering with a non-intimate dimension of the body. It would be an entirely different scenario if what they choose to do is tampering with the intimacy of the body; and this is what oral, anal sex or any other utilizing of the genitals do.

It is beyond the scope of these lines to explain how this happens. Our only objective is to point out that the dialogue about homosexuality is simply orbiting around the wrong centre. It insists in focusing on the intentions and the psychological condition of the homosexuals while the ethical issue at stake is whether coitus and other genital acts have the same ethical stand.

The dialogue on homosexuality keeps running the wrong course. The right question should be what has really changed in our culture for this issue to be on the table of most heated debates. The answer we hear is that this is one more case of failing to give “homosexual persons” equal rights. But perhaps the truth of the matter is simply that the parameters of the ethical and bodily perceptions have been changed by the back door and we don’t even talk about it.

The debate about homosexuality will not be clarified until we dare to question the fundamental issues on which it leans. If sex is something we may use, homosexual acts are morally neutral. But if we have never asked ourselves whether our bodies are something we have or something we are, we cannot even know if we do disagree in the first place.

28th Sunday: It is better to be saved than to be lucky

Ten lepers are healed by Jesus and only one of them takes the trouble to go back to Jesus and thank him. An easy moral to this story would be, we must be grateful: God gives us so much, the least we can do is say “thank you Lord”. But if this were the only lesson we can draw from today’s readings, the gospel would not be better than a mother who scolds her children for not saying “thank you” to the gentleman who just gave them a sweet.

Jesus carefully points out that only a foreigner was capable of discovering that the giver is more important than the gift. Probably a foreigner would be less tempted to associate the healing with the prescribed ritual of presenting themselves to the priest, and think beyond the efficacy of the ritual to discover the giver behind the gift. Nine lepers were just contented with having their health back. Only one of them discover that there must be something bigger than health at stake; that the giver of the gift is more important than the gift itself.

So, what does this foreigner have that the others don’t? In the first reading an Assyrian King, also a foreigner struck with leprosy, was suspicious of the treatment that the prophet Elisha had proposed. Elisha had asked him to simply bathe seven times into the river Jordan. Surely, this appeared nonsensical to a ruler of a kingdom with the mighty rivers. Only after he was healed did he discover that the God of that land had cured him, and not the bathing.

The therapy was simply the means to discover the God of that land behind the gift of health. And just in case there were doubts, Elisha sternly refused any reward or acknowledgment for the miracle. It was not bathing, it was not the prophet, it was the God of the land who was at work.

The Samaritan grateful leper of the gospel is not only healed. He is saved (“your faith has saved you”). Salvation comes through a personal relationship; not through rituals or activities, no matter how religious. Blessings are good; good enough to make our lives easier; but not good enough to save us. Only if we use the blessings to connect with the Giver, we can be truly saved.

It takes more than human gratefulness to discover the Giver behind the gifts we receive. It takes faith that saves and that is better than the gifts.

27th Sunday: Faith that moves mountains… when we serve

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you”(Lk 17:6)

Judging by those standards, my faith is certainly smaller than a mustard seed. Or is it?

A faith that can uproot a tree sounds quite powerful… even better, it sounds terribly practical. A faith of that kind would be like a miracle-power on demand. I just want this, I believe with my “strong” faith and voila, it happens. The problem with that kind of faith is that it looks more like Harry Potter’s hocus-pocus than a personal trust in God.

Furthermore a faith that becomes a kind of super-power would make God our servant, a kind of un-bottled genie, ready to fulfill our wishes. This is precisely the idea of faith that Jesus tries to correct. We are God’s servants and at the end of the long tiring working day, we are no more than “useless servants.” And being a “useless servant” is a wonderful feeling.

A couple of Americans were stranded in some remote inaccessible coast and stayed there for a few days without any water. Finally a boat approached the area and rescued them. They tell how the first sips of water they were given were gradually filling their bodies with life. Giving water can hardly be classified as heroic, however, for these two stranded souls, it was a second chance to live again. The “givers” could hardly take credit for their work; but the receivers will be forever grateful.

This is how Christian ministry actually feels. To the one who serves, it is nearly nothing; to the one who receives, it is God himself working, a new kind of life being pumped into his system. The servant is “nearly useless”; the service is divine.

This is why living a life of faith can uproot trees and even move mountains… because God is working, and we are just the “voluntary agents” in His work. We might desire a kind of faith that uproot trees. But to tell the truth, there is no tree I need to uproot lately. In fact, moving communities is certainly harder than moving mountains, and this is what faith does.

We should not be surprised when St. Paul advices Timothy “to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.” ( 2 Tim 1:6). That is all the servant is asked to do: to fan into flame the gift. Then, the gift will work by itself,  leading the community where God wants it to be led.

Next time we try to measure the size of our faith, we should not count the number of trees we can uproot; but rather, the number of times God has worked through our useless but God-filled contributions.