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Was the Biden student debt plan Biblical?

Sloppy Biblical arguments can’t save the president’s imperial debt decree

Protesters demonstrate outside the U.S. Supreme Court building on June 30. Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Was the Biden student debt plan Biblical?
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The Biden administration’s expansive executive order forgiving or reducing student debts for roughly 43 million borrowers suffered a severe setback last week from the Supreme Court. The court struck the program down 6-3. While it should have been 9-0, Christians should be grateful for anything that weakens this act of executive branch overreach.

But, some ask, doesn’t the Bible preach debt forgiveness and shouldn’t Christians therefore embrace the Biden plan? Not so fast. Yes, the Torah does command a seven-year debt forgiveness cycle and a 50-year return to the ancestral land system (Jubilee), but these wise laws for Israel bear scant similarity to the corrupt demagoguery of the Biden plan.

First, the Old Testament debt laws were … well … laws. They were not imperial decrees. One can find debt forgiveness decrees in the ancient near east. It was not uncommon for a new Babylonian Emperor to come in and wipe out debts to gain favor with the masses. Looked at in that historical context the Old Testament laws were conspicuous in being a set part of the legal code from the beginning of the national identity. No one could take political credit for them, except Yahweh, who revealed them. This eliminated the demagogic temptation of debt decrees from emperors or the later “lawgivers” who crept up during debt crises in ancient Greece. It also eliminated the uncertainty. Lenders knew about the seven-year limit in advance, instead of having it sprung on them without warning.

Second, the Old Testament debt laws were legislative not executive. There appears to be no authority for kings to issue such decrees, nor is it even clear that they had authority to enforce them. The Bible is acutely aware of the dangers of power accretion by monarchs. The Exodus was a power struggle between Yahweh and Pharoah. Ancient Israelites were tempted by Moloch worship—the word Moloch is very close to the Semitic word Melech, meaning king. When Israel called for a monarchy in 1 Samuel 8, God warned them about the king’s accumulation of power, including economic power. Torah debt forgiveness laws were conspicuously insulated from the monarchical branches of government. In our system of government, the executive branch is the analogue to monarchy, though wisely circumscribed. To allow the president to wipe out debts by decree is to move backwards in time to ancient empires and to erase not just student debt, but our debt to the founders who knew human nature well enough to limit executive power in financial matters.

Biden didn’t forgive a debt owed to himself. He shifted the debt payments from his supporters to the national debt—which means to future American taxpayers.

Third, Biblical debt forgiveness in both Old and New Testaments involves forgiveness of debt by the private party who owns the loan. In other words, it’s I forgive your debt to me, not I forgive your debt to the taxpayer, the “forgotten man.” Biden didn’t forgive a debt owed to himself. He shifted the debt payments from his supporters to the national debt—which means to future American taxpayers. The only instance in the Bible where one party forgives debts not owed to him personally is in the parable of the unfaithful steward. But he is unfaithful. He suffers disfavor from his master, the owner of the debts, and writes down the debts owed to his master to curry favor with the debtors. Jesus calls him “unrighteous.” That parable actually tracks with the Biden plan. He is in a tenuous situation with his master (the citizens) and he curries favor with a part of his political base (college-educated young people) by shifting their debts to the rest of us.

Fourth, none of this should be taken as a way of writing off what the Old Testament says about writing off debt. We must not turn down the volume of what the Bible says on a subject just because ideologues have exploited it. Christian consensus holds that Old Testament ceremonial and civil laws are not binding in details, nevertheless God’s law is wise and has something to teach us, even where it may not directly apply to us.

Fifth, this is not a way to spiritualize away any social teaching about debt as just being a metaphor for forgiveness of sin. In researching the chapter about debt for my book about the economic teachings of Jesus, I came (against my inclination) to conclude that the gospel references to forgiveness of debts were actually about forgiveness of debts. Yes, they were about forgiveness of sins too, which is why the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer can use forgiveness of debts and of trespasses interchangeably. The failure to heed those warnings led to a debt revolt that hastened the destruction of Jerusalem.

The Bible does speak about just debt forgiveness, but much of what it says is a warning against unjust debt shifting like the Biden plan. At an even more fundamental level, the Bible certainly does not allow for the borrowing of money you do not intend to pay back.

Jerry Bowyer

Jerry Bowyer is the chief economist of Vident Financial, editor of Townhall Finance, editor of the business channel of The Christian Post, host of Meeting of Minds with Jerry Bowyer podcast, president of Bowyer Research, and author of The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics. He is also resident economist with Kingdom Advisors, serves on the Editorial Board of Salem Communications, and is senior fellow in financial economics at the Center for Cultural Leadership. Jerry lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, Susan, and the youngest three of his seven children.

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