Compounding injustices on student loans
President Biden’s plan cannot find support in the Bible
After the Biden administration’s announcement of its new plan to repay student loans, some professing Christians are employing faulty theology to justify the program. Citing Jesus’s sacrifice and ancient Israel’s Year of Jubilee, they attempt to make a Biblical case for student loan debt “forgiveness.”
Author John Pavlovitz argues: “Conservative Christians are fully enraged at #studentloanforgiveness, missing the irony that their entire professed religion is based on the idea of a cancelled debt.”
Pavlovitz reworded a viral meme to make his point, which says: “If you're a Christian and you’re big mad about the possibility of student loan debt being cancelled, let me remind you that the entirety of your faith is built upon a debt you couldn’t pay that someone stepped in and paid for you.”
He also draws a parallel to ancient Israel’s Year of Jubilee, a celebration that occurred every 50 years, in which God required his people to absolve all debts, free prisoners, and release slaves. Veggie Tales creator and podcaster Phil Vischer also seems to agree.
Both comparisons show a misunderstanding of both Scripture (even the gospel itself) and what student loan debt “forgiveness” is.
It is true that Christianity centers on the cancelation of debt. The debt is sin, and Jesus, God made flesh, voluntarily paid it on our behalf through his death on a cross. Though we were once dead in our trespasses, “God made alive together with him … canceling the record 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 Year of Jubilee is another example of God’s mercy—every debt was truly and completely absolved.
First, if these are the basis for debt “cancellation” policy, then all debts should be “forgiven,” not just student loans. How would that work? Also, these Biblical references are not at all like the president’s student loan debt plan, which is not forgiveness or cancellation but rather is the forcible transfer of debt from one group to another. Whereas Jesus voluntarily paid for our sins, in the case of student loans, the government is demanding Americans foot the bill for people who chose to go into debt for college. While Jesus paid for a debt we could not pay, taxpayers will be forced to cover a debt that many debtors can but haven’t paid.
President Joe Biden’s plan is not only unsupported by these Biblical references but also objectively unjust: The working class will compensate for debtors who often earn more than they do. Even The Washington Post admits that the plan will most greatly benefit people in the top 60 percent of income distribution. According to the Brookings Institute, half of the roughly $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loan debt is owed by graduate students (lawyers, doctors, professors, etc.) who also garner the highest earnings. People without a college degree have the lowest median earnings and account for 63 percent of Americans.
God’s Word does speak to debts, just not in the way many professing Christians on Twitter believe it does. Psalm 37:1 condemns refusing to pay back debts as wicked. Proverbs 22:7 calls a borrower “a slave to the lender.” Paul instructs Christians in Romans 13:8 to owe no one anything except love.
The forced transfer of debts is not the generosity to which Christians are called. While we should pay our taxes, the giving that honors God is voluntary (Matthew 22:21; 2 Corinthians 9:7). A person altruistically paying off someone else’s debt is compassionate, but the government forcing a person to pay off someone else’s debt is not. Christians are called to work diligently to provide both for themselves and for those around them (2 Thessalonians 3:10; Ephesians 4:27).
God did forbid Israelites from charging interest on loans when the debtor is impoverished (Leviticus 25:35–38). Many point out that the student loan process is predatory and unfair, as both the government and universities work together to convince sometimes poor borrowers to take out more than they can pay back. This is largely true, but the transfer of student loan debt doesn’t even begin to resolve this.
The federal government is the largest lender of student loans, and Congress eliminated limits on borrowing for college and graduate school in the 1990s and early 2000s. That means universities, even those with huge endowments, can continue to raise the cost of tuition without repercussions.
Address that—in addition to encouraging trade school, community college, and financial competence—and we may actually be able to help those in debt, rather than using bad theology to justify transferring wealth from plumbers to those who attended college.
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