Worsening student loan injustices
After the Biden administration announced its new student loan repayment plan, some professing Christians are employing flawed theology to justify the program. Citing the sacrifice of Jesus and Israel’s ancient Jubilee year, they attempt to present a biblical case for “forgiveness” of student loan debt.
Author John Pavlovitz argue“Conservative Christians are completely furious with #studentloanforgivenessmissing the irony that their entire professed religion is based on the idea of a canceled debt.
Pavlovitz rephrased a viral meme to make his point, which said“If you’re a Christian and you’re very angry about the possibility of your student loan debt being forgiven, let me remind you that your entire faith rests on a debt you can’t pay and someone stepped in and paid for you.”
He also has attracted a parallel to the ancient year of Israel’s Jubilee, a celebration that took place every 50 years, during which God asked his people to absolve all debts, release prisoners and free slaves. Vegetarian Tales creator and podcaster Phil Vischer also seems to agree.
Both comparisons show a misunderstanding of both scripture (even the gospel itself) and what “forgiveness” of student loan debt is.
It is true that Christianity is centered on the cancellation of debt. Debt is sin, and Jesus, God made flesh, willingly paid it on our behalf through his death on a cross. Even though we were once dead in our trespasses, “God restored life with him…cancelling the file of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” (Colossians 2:13-14) By grace through faith in Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to God forever. Israel’s Jubilee Year is another example of God’s mercy—all debt was truly and completely forgiven.
First, if this is the basis of the debt “cancellation” policy, then all debt should be “forgiven”, not just student loans. How would that work? Moreover, these biblical references bear no resemblance to the Presidential Student Debt Plan, which is not a pardon or cancellation, but rather a forced transfer of debt from one group to another. While Jesus willingly paid for our sins, in the case of student loans, the government is asking Americans to foot the bill for people who chose to go into college debt. While Jesus paid a debt that we could not pay, taxpayers will be obligated to meet a debt that many debtors can but have not paid.
Biden’s plan is not only unsupported by these biblical references, but also objectively unfair: the working class will compensate debtors who often earn more than they do. Even the Washington Post admits that the plan will most benefit those in the top 60% of the income distribution. According to the Brookings Institute, half of the approximately $1.5 trillion in unpaid student loans is from by graduate students (lawyers, doctors, professors, etc.), who collect the highest earnings. People without a college degree have the lowest median incomes and make up 63% of Americans.
The Word of God talks about debt, but not like many Christians who call themselves Christians on Twitter think. Psalm 37:1 condemns refusing to pay debts as wicked. Proverbs 22:7 calls a borrower “the lender’s servant.” Paul instructs Christians in Romans 13:8 to owe no one anything but love.
The forced transfer of debts is not the generosity to which Christians are called. While we should pay our taxes, the gift that honors God is voluntary (Matthew 22:21, 2 Corinthians 9:7). A person who selflessly repays someone else’s debt is compassionate, but the government forcing a person to repay someone else’s debt is not. Christians are called to work diligently to provide for themselves and those around them (2 Thessalonians 3:10, Ephesians 4:27).
God forbade the Israelites to charge interest on loans when the debtor was poor (Leviticus 25:35-38). Many point out that the student loan process is predatory and unfair, as the government and universities work together to convince sometimes poor borrowers to take more than they can repay. That’s largely true, but transferring student loan debt doesn’t even begin to solve that problem.
The federal government is the largest lender of student loans, and Congress eliminated borrowing limits for college and graduate school in the 1990s and early 2000s. This means that universities, even those with huge endowments, can continue to raise tuition without repercussions.
Address that, in addition to encouraging trade schools, community colleges, and financial literacy, and we may actually be able to help those in debt, rather than using bad theology to justify the transfer wealth from plumbers to those who attended college.