Forgiveness, Debt Forgiveness, Student Loan Debt Forgiveness and the Gospel

Forgiveness, Debt Forgiveness, Student Loan Debt Forgiveness and the Gospel July 11, 2019

Cari Dobbins: Student Loan Debt / pixabay

When Peter asked about how many times he should forgive any offense he received from others, Jesus replied with the symbolic “seventy times seven” before telling the story of a king who settled his accounts:

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents;  and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, `Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’  And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.  But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, `Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’  He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart (Matt. 18:23-35 RSV).

Clearly, the focus of the tale is the spirit of forgiveness which we should have with others. Jesus tells us that when we recognize the mercy and forgiveness which we have been given for any of our offenses to others, we should realize the need others have for such mercy and give it to them when needed. We are to treat others as we would like to be treated. And yes, Jesus also gave a warning: if we do not embrace the spirit of forgiveness with others, we risk losing such mercy for ourselves, as we will be called to task for our improprieties and have to face the consequences for them.

Nonetheless, beyond the lesson of forgiveness, we can learn something else from the parable, the way Jesus (and through Jesus, God) looks at monetary debts, the obligations which we have to pay them off when we can, and the debt forgiveness which should be possible if we find ourselves overburdened by them. Jesus promotes debt forgiveness for those in extreme need but he also does so with a caveat: those who are forgiven their debts to some should likewise then forgive the debts they might be owed by others in similar dire circumstances. That is, when those who owe millions of dollars find their debt is wiped clean, by the generosity of some benefactor or governmental agency, they should be expected to treat those who owe them debt with similar mercy and forgiveness. If someone is capable of paying it off, and selfishly neglects their debt, that is one thing; but when those who have debt find circumstances in life have made it impossible for them to actually pay off what they owe, such mercy is not only good but often necessary. The Christian faith is, after all, founded upon the bounty of God’s mercy and grace which perfects us, allowing us to do what we cannot do on our own. Christians, who have been received grace to perfect themselves demonstrate this by sharing that grace to those who are need. By granting mercy, helping those in desperate circumstances, we follow the moral example given to us by God himself.[1]

When look at the ongoing student loan debt crisis in the United States, the principles expounded upon Jesus’s parable should be considered and promoted by Christians as a reason to suggest student loan forgiveness. Economically, of course, there are good reasons to promote such debt forgiveness, but sadly, there remains many Christians who are standing against such a rational and needed program. They argue that it would be unfair to those who can, or already have, paid off their loans. And yet, as the parables of Jesus suggest, forgiveness is to be had, not for those who have been blessed with the means of paying off loans, but those who have found themselves unable to attain those means, and this is exactly the problem those with student loans face today. The job situation is not such that they can earn enough money to live and properly pay off their loans, and yet the job situation is also such that most workers are expected to pay for their own education before they get a job. That means most people are expected to take out loans with the hope that they will win the job lottery: some do, and they are able to pay off their loans, but many others find that to be impossible and so they suffer the anxiety such loans have placed upon their lives. They live out the same kind of trap which tenant farmers in the Great Depression faced. Tenant farmers had to take out loans in order to survive, and then they had to take low paying jobs which would not pay enough to pay off their loans; eventually, such farmers would take out more and more loans, finding themselves trapped in a cycle of debt whereby they become virtually enslaved to those whom they owed money.

Now, instead of farmers, it is the whole working class which has become trapped with debt. Since most workers are expected to have some sort of post-secondary education, the banks (and federal government) have come in with student loan programs which, similar to the loans tenant farmers once had to take, are difficult if not impossible to pay off with the wages they receive. The working class has become enslaved to a system whereby they are expected to pay for their education with loans and they are expected to get an education before they can get a proper paying job (anything less than that is viewed as menial labor not worthy of living wages). They are not at fault, because necessity requires them to take out loans in order to get the education they need for work, work which then does not pay them living wages, making them deeper in debt as they have to take out and rely upon more and more debt in order to survive. This is the fate of many in the modern world, especially those who were raised poor before they tried to get an education for themselves.

But, like Jesus’ story of the king who forgave his servants their debts, we find that many who hold the debts of the modern worker have been granted greater economic mercy and bailouts, such as was had with the Great Bank Bailout of 2008.   Economically, there was a good reason for the bailout. The problem we find is that those who gained from the bailout did not share the benefits they received with those who owed them money by giving them a similar bailout: instead, they continued to charge and mistreat those who could not afford to pay off their debts. By focusing only on large monetary interests in 2008, instead of the whole distorted economic structure which had developed in the United States, the bailout offered limited help to a society burdened by debts, and it ignored those who most needed such debt forgiveness. Those who received aid, such as the banks, should have shared their mercy with their debtors, and if they had done that, the economic benefit of the bailout would have been greater: but because they have not done so, it should not be surprising that they, who have gained both from the bailout and from their loans, should be the ones who must bear the burden of the economy they have helped create.

Ben Funnell in the Financial Times explained, the “dirty little secret” of capitalism is that such debt is the means by which capitalism promotes the appearance that most in society are affluent when only a few gain true wealth: “The answer is capitalism’s dirty little secret: excessive lending was the only way to maintain the living standards of the vast bulk of the population at a time when wealth was being concentrated in the hands of an elite.”[2] Debt forgiveness is a means of combatting such a monstrosity. Debt forgiveness is a necessary part of the process by which this consolidation of wealth can be overturned and the universal distribution of goods can be attained. It is for this reason that both Jewish and Christian traditions see the value of the “Jubilee Year” as a way of promoting the universal good and stopping predators taking advantage of the weak and vulnerable:

The jubilee year was meant to restore equality among all the children of Israel, offering new possibilities to families which had lost their property and even their personal freedom. On the other hand, the jubilee year was a reminder to the rich that a time would come when their Israelite slaves would once again become their equals and would be able to reclaim their rights. At the times prescribed by Law, a jubilee year had to be proclaimed, to assist those in need. This was required by just government. Justice, according to the Law of Israel, consisted above all in the protection of the weak, and a king was supposed to be outstanding in this regard, as the Psalmist says: “He delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy” (Ps 72:12-13). The foundations of this tradition were strictly theological, linked first of all with the theology of Creation and with that of Divine Providence. It was a common conviction, in fact, that to God alone, as Creator, belonged the “dominium altum”—lordship over all Creation and over the earth in particular (cf. Lev 25:23). If in his Providence God had given the earth to humanity, that meant that he had given it to everyone. Therefore the riches of Creation were to be considered as a common good of the whole of humanity. Those who possessed these goods as personal property were really only stewards, ministers charged with working in the name of God, who remains the sole owner in the full sense, since it is God’s will that created goods should serve everyone in a just way. The jubilee year was meant to restore this social justice. The social doctrine of the Church, which has always been a part of Church teaching and which has developed greatly in the last century, particularly after the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, is rooted in the tradition of the jubilee year.[3]

Only through restorative justice, such as found in and through debt relief, like those some suggest being done for those burdened by student loans, can the unjust balance between the rich and poor be overturned. So long as education has to be funded by those who want jobs, and jobs do not properly pay for those who had to take out loans to fund their own education, the imbalance will continue, and workers will find themselves downtrodden and their human dignity questioned. As long as the work force is itself ruled by the powerful elite, those who are fortunate enough to find jobs which offer true living wages and can pay off their debt should not look down upon those who are not as fortunate as they.

Sadly, we find out that we have not learned from the past. It remains true that those who set up the system which makes sure that most workers must live with some level of debt are the ones who gain all kinds of economic bailouts from the government, producing as it were, the “socialism of the rich.” It is an irrational system.  Forgiveness of debts should not be seen as a bad thing. Those who do not need it should not be envious of those who do.  Christians should know this:  many of Jesus’s parables speak out against the resentment that some have for the work they have accomplished in life when they find others receive mercy and grace. It should not be a competition. It should rather be a desire for all to share in the goods of the earth, and to have their basic needs met. Workers should not be led astray by the rich trying to make them angry at the poor: they should rather see how the rich have caused the problem and are the ones who must find a way to fix the problem they have created. If not, eventually the rich will find their time will come, and they will find no one will show them mercy.

[1] This, then, is one of many ways in which we can present ourselves in being in the image and likeness of God.

[2] Ben Funnell, “Debt is Capitalism’s Dirty Little Secret” in Financial Times (June 30, 2009).

[3] St. John Paul II, “Tertio Millennio Adveniente.” Vatican Translation. ¶13.


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