The president claims the power to bypass Congress under the “HEROES Act,” passed after the 9/11 attacks, which allows forgiveness in case of a “military operation or national emergency.” Biden interprets the COVID pandemic as such an emergency; critics call that a stretch.
Biden says that now “people can start to finally crawl out from under that mountain of debt to get on top of their rent and their utilities, to finally think about buying a home or starting a family or starting a business.” But a Wall Street Journal editorial considered cancellations “unfair to Americans who repaid their loans or didn’t go to college” and accused Biden of “the biggest executive usurpation of Congress in modern history.”
As all this plays out, does the Bible, which has so long shaped moral judgments on public policy, have anything to say on such matters?
Liberal Protestant blogger John Pavlovitz chided Christians who oppose Biden, saying they ignore that “their entire professed religion is based on the idea of a cancelled debt. Way to lose the plot, kids.”
Podcaster Allie Beth Stuckey responded for World magazine that “the debt is sin, and Jesus, God made flesh, voluntarily paid it on our behalf through his death on a cross” so that “we are reconciled to God forever.”
One wording of history’s most-recited prayer asks God to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In Sojourners magazine,” which advocates “racial and social justice” on “biblical” grounds, Braxton Brewington of the Debt Collective writes that the Lord’s Prayer teaches “debt abolition” so the U.S. should go far beyond Biden’s plan, wiping out the entirety of student debt and all credit card balances due for “medical care, rent, and other basic needs.”
The conventional Christian interpretation is that the Lord’s Prayer is about each individual’s spiritual and moral failings, and not financial affairs, though this may involve societal as well as personal sin. Also consider Jesus’ well-known parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35.
For sure, the Old and New Testaments are filled with admonitions to help those caught in economic distress. And remarkably, Scripture prescribed thoroughgoing debt forgiveness during the “Sabbatical Year” as depicted in Deuteronomy 15:1-2 (JPS translation): “Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the LORD. …“
Why? So that “there shall be no needy among you” in the promised land.
Note that debt forgiveness did not apply to non-Israelites, and the nation is told not to become a debtor, which is how the Book of Proverbs advised individuals. There were limitations on remission, and when the system became unworkable, influential 1st Century B.C.E. Rabbi Hillel the Elder devised a work-around as courts largely took over management of debts, whereas a literal reading applied Deuteronomy only to individual creditors.
Why seven years? That is a sacred number seen in the seven days of creation and Scripture’s unique seven-day week that ends with a Sabbath free from cares over making a living. Also, the biblical Jubilee of seven times seven years returned ancestral lands and freed indentured debt-slaves (see Leviticus 25), though it’s unclear historically whether this was a wide observance or only an ideal.
CONTINUE READING: “What does biblical religion teach about forgiving loan debts?”, by Richard Ostling.
FIRST IMAGE: Uncredited illustration with a feature entitled “Student Loan Debt Forgiveness & Elimination — Top 4 Pros and Cons” at the Britannica ProCon.org website.