In August, President Joe Biden announced that his administration would forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for each federal borrower and a Additional $10,000 for any Federal Pell Grant recipient. While this relief is not enough, it has the potential to completely erase student debt from 20 million Americans.
Apparently surprised by this radical action by the executive, Washington Post journalist Jeff Stein took to Twitter to interrogate what was the “best historical precedent” for “cancelling $10,000 of student debt per borrower”? While some have mentioned massive loan forgiveness from the Payment Protection Program or invoked failed attempts in 2009 to provide mortgage debt relief, the best historical precedent for blanket debt forgiveness dates back perhaps thousands of years. years – to the biblical practice of a Jubilee year.
In Leviticus 25, God commands Moses and the people of Israel to institute a year of Jubilee. Every 50 years, with the sound of a trumpet, the Jubilee marked a moral and economic change in society: slaves were freed, land was returned to its original owners and all unpaid debts were eliminated (25:1 -12). Likewise, in Deuteronomy 15, God says that every seven years, creditors must “remit the claim that is held against a neighbor” because “the remission of the Lord has been proclaimed.” In the New Testament, Jesus asks his disciples to pray “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4). The Scriptures are clear regarding the abolition of debt and the release of the debtor: God demands a society that brings justice and freedom to all and rejects a society that physically and rhetorically chains its people.
A central pillar of the Christian faith is that Jesus “paid” for all our sins by sacrificing his life, canceling a debt we owed but could never repay. The Bible is imbued with a spirit of compassion and sympathy for the poor – and rails against the rich who mistreat them. In the Hebrew Bible as in the New Testament, the Bible is squarely on the side of the debtors.
And that is what makes the underhanded objections to student debt forgiveness, especially from believers, so staggering and deeply hypocritical. Paul Begala, a devout Catholic and prominent Democratic political consultant who has spoken at length about how his faith influences his politics, has publicly criticized student debt cancellation, calling it “bad politics as well as bad politics.” On Real time with Bill MaherBegala said he felt the policy was designed “to completely piss off the working class.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R.-Utah), a devout Mormon, called student debt relief a “bribe,” facetiously ask if we were to then”[f]car loans? Cancel credit card debt? Forgive mortgages? What could go wrong?”
Evangelical Christian and prominent ‘debt guru’ radio host Dave Ramsey took issue with the fact that millions of Americans are getting economic aid, calling it a ‘political move’ the Biden administration is making to “catch your attention and make you love them because the midterms are approaching.
These opponents are not only wrong, but they are also falling into a scarcity trap that pits debtors against each other – as if debt cancellation is a zero-sum game where someone has to lose for others win. Begala, Romney and Ramsey’s arguments are based on the belief that working-class people, people who have paid off their debt or people who are still in debt should oppose debt forgiveness – despite the fact that most Americans support it.
Economic aid should make believers happy, not grimace. It’s a large-scale debt, not the cancelation of these debts, which presents a moral hazard to our society.
That’s why Biden canceling $10,000 of debt should be just the first pebble in a landslide of national and international debt abolition. First, Biden should ask Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to eliminate the remaining outstanding student debt, which would narrow the racial wealth gap. Black and Latino people, and black women in particular, bear the brunt of this crushing burden, having been stripped of generational wealth and forced to achieve higher educational status to compete with white workers on the workplace. Today, 90% of black students are forced to borrow federal dollars to attend college.
Debt is overtly racialized and gendered, and it also preys on the indigent as a tool of social control and punishment. Credit card debt for medical care, rent, and other basic needs should also be forgiven. As wages have lagged behind the pace of productivity in recent decades, many Americans are forced to borrow to make ends meet.
Not only are we forcing people into debt for their basic needs, but we are also trapping people in debt while imprisoning them. The criminal justice system in the United States forces people into debt by charging incarcerated people thousands of dollars to make phone calls or buy clothes. The United States leads the world in incarceration, holding 20% of the world’s prison population and less than 5% of the world’s population. Congress banned debtors’ jails and the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1983, but modern courts still jail the poor because they simply don’t have the money.
Jesus identified himself with the prisoners and said that God had sent him “to proclaim the release of captives…to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the favor of the Lord” (Luke 4:18). The Debt Collective, a union of debtors with which I organize, takes the Scriptures and this work of debt abolition head on. We successfully lobby local and federal governments for relief from student loan debt, school lunch debt, criminal debt, and more. Inspired by the biblical year of Jubilee, our very own Rolling Jubilee Fund – sister project to the Debt Collective which buys out and clears household debt on the secondary market – has cleared millions of dollars for working people.
But it will take much more to realize the full promise of the Jubilee. A chorus of unions (workers and debtors), lawyers, clergy and Good Samaritans will have to work together to force the hand of the creditors. When Jesus drove out the moneychangers who were making profit in the temple, he did not politely ask them to leave. We, too, will need to turn the proverbial tables of today, waging necessary debt strikes, fighting predatory institutions, and letting go of our internalized shame that comes with debt.
There is more than enough racial and economic justification to free people and nations from these immoral debts. Debt cancellation is a fundamental principle of Christianity. As Romans 13:8 says, we are to “leave no debt unpaid, except the debt continue to love one another, for whoever loves another has fulfilled the law” (NIV).