President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan certainly has gotten people talking, especially on social media. Among this chatter many are using the Bible both to defend and to decry this policy, but I do not think this is the right approach. Let me begin by saying I am in favor of some form of student loan forgiveness mostly because I recognize that college is necessary for any number of jobs which are great public services but suffer from mediocre pay. For this reason I would like to see college subsidized for those who want to go into certain professions such as nursing, teaching, and social work. And to that extent I am in favor of President Biden’s effort. But I also realistically understand that blanket policies enacted by the American government, however well intentioned, are often abused by those who do not deserve the help. I am thankful that President Biden put a cap of $125,000 a year on the income of those who can apply for this forgiveness program. Though perhaps I think there are other ways to place guarantees on who can effectively use this service, which might have been more significant. But I am not here to provide political commentary, I need to return to my subject.
I have already said that I have seen tweets from conservative Christian commentators using passages from Psalms and Proverbs which praise paying one’s debts to condemn President Biden’s policy. And I think such use of the Bible is extremely poor. Not least because these verses are directed at one who owes the money and not the one who can forgive. The Scriptures cannot be used in any way to condemn the president’s policy, there is simply no getting around the fact that there is a tendency in the Scriptures to forgive debt not force repayment. There is a universal ethic within the Bible that addresses the issue of debt and loan forgiveness; this universal ethic is those who lend money to others must be willing to forgive the debt of those who will struggle to repay the loan and those who have significant enough means to repay the loan must always work to do so. We see this principle time and again not in a specific command but in the wisdom that holds in tension a desire to forgive loans as well as be honest individuals who repay what we borrow. While the Old Testament certainly tells people to repay what they borrow and to not borrow more than they could honestly repay, we should not look to the Old Testament for rigorous laws about repaying debt. The fact is that much of our debt system would be antithetical to the concerns and practice of the Old Testament.
We can take the discussion of debt further, in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus teaches us that we are to pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. ” While it is easy to interpret these words as our “sins” because our primary focus in forgiveness is our sins against God, Jesus uses a word for financial debt and does so intentionally so that we can associate the forgiveness we receive from God with the forgiveness of all indebtedness people have to us. Jesus’ message is that all the debt we owe to God is forgiven and our prayer should be that we seek to live out that same style of forgiveness in this world which includes financial forgiveness. Like with the Old Testament, this is not a rigid command to forgive everything everyone owes us, rather Jesus is talking about an attitude of forgiveness. The Lord’s Prayer is designed to remind us of the generous forgiveness we have received from God and to be ready to pass that type of grace on to others in all avenues of life (including financial).
Putting all of this in perspective we can easily say forgiving a loan for those individuals (like teachers or social workers) who benefit society is completely Biblical. Doing so shows, not simply love to a person who could use financial help, but also a desire to create a better society where those who work to do so are treated with respect and compassion. But just as it is not correct to try to berate this law on Biblical grounds it is also inappropriate to praise it on Biblical grounds. This law is impartial in a way that is not entirely consistent with Biblical teaching, since it is only based on the barest economics. A Christian approach would consider other factors such as the nature of the degree chosen and the purpose behind the degree. While we can praise specific outcomes of this loan forgiveness program and recognize there are certainly Biblical resonances, it is as equally unjustified to praise this law in Biblical terms as it was to praise the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v.Wade. In both instances there are superficial alignment with the case for Biblical justice, however in each of these instances there are also consequences that are outside Biblical justice.
During this week I have again witnessed where those on the left and on the right share a common reading of the Bible and are quick to use it for the justification of their favored political outcomes. But as with abortion, if this sentiment is not reigned in we will see an unhealthy political alliance with Democratic Party strengthened. I do understand that some of what I have seen is a reaction to the spike in Christian Nationalist rhetoric on social media. Some are simply drawing out the parallels between loan forgiveness and the Scriptures to say to self-proclaimed Christian Nationalists, “Here, you should be supporting this, it’s Christian”, and admittedly I have thought and said similar things (I have since deleted everything I said using Biblically based sarcasm). But we should be slow to connect such parallels nonetheless because they do not help bring about the best for society. Using such thin connections to the Bible ultimately undermine the Scriptures as people (rightly) point out the abuses which such laws will allow. Much like I argue when it comes to abortion, we should celebrate where the laws allign with our desires but also recognize where they fall short in reaching to a truly Christian standard. It is not unreasonable to support Mr. Biden’s plan, but his plan certainly falls short of the Christian ideal. We should consider the situation for what it is and respond with appropriate levels praise, being very slow to praise this action as “Biblical” in it’s forgiveness of debt.