While President Biden’s announcement of student-debt forgiveness elicited shouts of joy from many of the 43 million Americans who could experience relief under his plan, Republicans have responded by declaring their opposition to the very idea of debt forgiveness. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Biden of “socialism,” while Pennsylvania Representative Dan Meuser declared it a “moral hazard” to forgive “self imposed debt.” For decades, Republicans have claimed to champion biblical values, and MAGA enthusiasts like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene have more recently embraced the goal of a “Christian nation.” But nothing exposes the hypocrisy of Christian nationalism more than Republicans’ knee-jerk reaction against debt forgiveness. It is, after all, something Jesus taught his disciples to pray for.
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” is more than a line from the Lord’s Prayer that children memorize in Sunday school. For practicing Christians, it is a regular reminder of the Jubilee tradition that Jesus embraced in his first sermon in Luke’s gospel. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus declared from the prophet Isaiah, “and has anointed me to proclaim… the favorable year of the Lord.” As his 1st-century hearers knew, Jesus was referring to the debt forgiveness laid out in Leviticus 25, which prescribes a regular social practice of clearing debts in order to correct for the accumulated injustice of an unequal distribution of resources in society. The idea doesn’t come from Karl Marx, as McConnell suggests, but from ancient Scripture.
It’s amazing to us that many of the same people who consistently vote for corporate tax breaks and policies that give more money to our wealthiest neighbors cry “socialism” when anyone proposes relief to poor people who are saddled by debt. As people who took vows to proclaim the biblical text, we find such reactionary defense of wealth to be the antithesis of biblical values.
While the Jubilee is a clear command of Scripture, biblical scholars have debated how often it was actually practiced in ancient Israel. But the economic historian Michael Hudson, who has directed a decades-long study at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, argues in his book …and forgive them their debts that the notion of Jubilee wasn’t simply an ideal for ancient Israel, but rather a practical lesson learned during the Babylonian exile. Ancient Mesopotamian societies had learned from experience that crippling debt was an inevitable consequence of lending at interest (what the Bible calls “usury”). For the good of the whole, a practice of “Clean Slate” debt forgiveness emerged to keep society functioning. The children of Israel came to understand this practice as God’s design.
Of course, people of goodwill can disagree on policy. While some conservatives have expressed concern that Biden’s debt-forgiveness plan could exacerbate inflation, we side with those who argue that the Administration should do more, along with Congressional action, to address extreme inequality and the racial wealth gap in America. By forgiving twice as much for borrowers who qualified for Pell Grants as undergraduates, Biden’s plan does target relief to low-income families, which are disproportionately Black, brown, Asian, and Native. Equally important to the plan is its hedge against interest going forward. For borrowers who pay 5% of their expendable income toward repaying the undergraduate loans each month, interest will be forgiven. And low-income debtors who make less than 225% of the federal poverty line will not owe any payments until their income rises to a living wage. These, too, are steps toward an economy where people who go to work every day can afford to feed, clothe, and house their families, and even take a little time off now and then to enjoy time with one another.
But it’s not enough. The $20,000 cap for Pell Grant recipients, for instance, leaves millions of those most severely impacted by predatory lending still saddled with debt. To experience the full benefit of Jubilee, we need to wipe the slate clean for those who are carrying the heaviest burdens of debt.
As Christian pastors, we know that the false promise of a “Christian nation” has persuaded millions of Americans to support policies that hurt God’s people. In a multi-faith democracy, we don’t need our faith to be privileged by state power. But every faith can and should inform our vision for our common life. The tradition of debt forgiveness, which is shared by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike, offers a powerful vision for a way forward from the historic inequality that currently harms our economy. It’s no surprise that defenders of the wealthy elite are crying “socialism.” Their forebearers attacked New Deal and Great Society programs along the same lines. But moral movements throughout our nation’s history have made the case that moral policies that lift from the bottom are good for all of us.
Biden’s student-loan forgiveness plan won’t bring the Jubilee we pray for every day, but it’s a step in the right direction. Some of us would love to hear the President and other Democrats talk more about how policies like this help poor and low-income people, not just the “working class.” Such public commitments to the common good can go a long way toward motivating voters who don’t believe politicians from any party care about them. If a moral movement of people committed to the common good can rally for the midterms, this week’s action shows that the Biden Administration is ready and willing to push further toward an economy that works for all of us in 2023. That’s a vision we pray more Americans can get behind.
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