Christ Forgives Debts, so Should We

Christ Forgives Debts, so Should We November 16, 2020


Woman Holding a Balance by Johannes Vermeer (c.1664). Open Access from the National Gallery of Art.


“Give all, for all is yours” has long been the tagline of my blog. There’s a neat theology of debt tied up in those few words: God has freely granted the world to us, we who deserve none of it. As the first among sinners, we ought to share the wealth, pass it on. Every last item we possess, good day we have, second of bliss we let pass by, is best given away. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!” Well, if He gives it away, I probably should too. I say to you not seven, but seventy times seven. Talk about a narrow path—but what choice does a Christian have? Baptism signs you up for a kingdom of fire and forgiveness that is already at hand.

That’s abstract poppycock. I await the commenters, or at least those thinking to themselves, “well that’s fine in theory, just as communism is fine in theory [if they’ll even grant me that]. But we deal with facts here, bucko—and facts say that the world runs on extracting every last cent owed. An eye for an eye, a repayment of a loan at 18% compounding interest per annum over the initial principal.”

Can’t say I agree, partner. You see, while I’m pretty open about being no fan of Joseph Robinette Biden, I am intrigued by his talk of student loan forgiveness. I imagine for him this is not really a moral question: such a move would act as a stimulus, allowing tens of millions of low-income, low-savings young people to inject some much needed cash into the economy. Lord knows our ailing real estate sector (a bubble about the size of Dallas, floating on a most uncertain bath) could use more homeowners, or at least people who believe they may one day perhaps be able to consider being homeowners. And, on purely economic terms, he’s not wrong. The economy, increasingly little more than the promise of gig sector jobs that can’t keep a single man in a low-rent area afloat for more than a couple weeks, could use it. People are hurting, as is Mammon (at least in the abstract).

What matters to me here, for our purposes, however, is why a Christian ought to support this proposal. I’ve had a few friends challenge me on this and I figure a blog isn’t the worst place to offer a response. I won’t dilly dally with the abstract; I won’t get into the Church’s teaching on usury (not a fan), nor other such needlessly heady things. Jubilees will not come up. I will simply raise a couple common objections and answer them.

I am told (and this seems to be the center of most of the objections) that Christianity (and society more broadly) run on fairness and that there is nothing fair about debt forgiveness. At minimum, I am told, everyone who has paid their student loans off ought to get the money they “wasted” back. I, of course, would be fine with everyone getting a cash handout in these difficult times. So, if a critic wants to recommend this and get the president-elect to do it, be my guest. Just as I support public healthcare for all (even those who can afford private healthcare!) so am I fine with extra money going to those already better off. That isn’t what’s on the table though; I can only defend what is.

“Aha! Well this will empower lawyers and doctors and those with money already. It leaves the poor, especially those who do not go to college, in the lurch!” Not quite. 30% of people have some college debt in the US. This averages between $20-25,000 dollars, with average payments of between $200-300 a month. More and more Americans are attending college too, with the vast majority of these being in public universities. T Most of the students who graduate with degrees in either business or a STEM field. They aren’t, in other words, beanie-wearing comparative literature majors from Williams. More like finance majors from Rutgers.

Some pupils end up at for-profit institutions, often seeking some sort of vocational or practical training, finding themselves, by the end trapped in a vicious cycle of debt with limited career prospects. Most of those with debt, in other words, are not rich people. True, some of those with high-paying career prospects would have some debt forgiven, but they would likely still have more to repay (and happily could do so with their increased earnings). Those with lots of familial income or generational wealth are unlikely to incur debt to begin with, meaning that those who stand to gain from student debt relief are those form poor to middling backgrounds who are trying to better their lives through education—to say anything else is to willfully misrepresent who these debtors are.

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