Student loans are an important part of receiving a college education. Usually, for undergraduate students, they are a big part of the financial aid package. For universities, they are an important source of income. The little “Christian college” I attended in Oklahoma would not survive without them. In fact, I wonder how many small faith-affiliated liberal arts colleges would close if student loans weren’t available. So Christians who oppose any student loan forgiveness get a mixed message. But Christian education is already a mixed message. Meritocracy is the message of most colleges and even most churches. Grace only has a small voice in church messaging. The movement to forgive student loan debt is one that threatens this message for middle-class Christians. And it is high time we did.
Old Testament Loans
In truth, I am suspicious of the application of the ancient agrarian economy of the Hebrew Bible to modern economies. Without good old usury, we wouldn’t have the current financial system. Some will say we should get rid of the current banking system. Personally, that should change. But an agrarian economy is not an industrial economy. And we have to admit it.
Loans and debts in the Torah are a major discussion. They are in the wisdom literature and the Prophets too. Indebtedness in goods and in money is treated in the same way. Any loan bearing interest is usury unless charged to a non-Israelite. Usury led to indebtedness and eventually slavery. The cancellation of debts over seven years aims to lighten these burdens. But where a person derives income from holding another’s debt, such write-offs have been avoided in every possible way. Indentured servitude, once practiced in the United States, carried a guarantee of release every seven years. But a loophole allowed the master to sell the deed to another person in the sixth year, binding the servant for another seven years.
Loopholes are always sought when it comes to power and money. Christians can see the comparison between the two types of economies that work here.
Jesus and debt
“What do you think, Simon?” From whom do the kings of the earth draw toll or tribute? From their children or from others? When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, in order not to offend them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that appears; and when you open his mouth, you will find a coin; Take it and give it to them for you and me. (Matthew 17:25b-27)
At first glance, this passage speaks of Jesus as the son of God who should be exempt from the tax for the upkeep of the temple of God. But look who else should be exempt. Simon gets enough money to pay the tax so”we do not offend them. Simon is just as exonerated or just as responsible as Jesus. Curiously, people collecting the tax should have been able to pay for the temple. But they seem to need money from the mouths of fish. Yes. The story is ridiculous. It’s meant to be seen that way. Jesus knows that such taxes have increased the indebtedness of ordinary people while further enriching the High Priest and other Temple officials. There was blasphemy involved which would be covered by the offense committed by these officials.
Loans and the Lord’s Prayer
Every Sunday, many English-speaking Christians recite the words “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As a kid, that never made sense to me. The intrusion still followed the word “No” on some signs. I knew that meant we were told to stay off someone else’s land. We never made many intrusions to make up for it. Other Christians say “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”. I learned that was not as elegant a way of saying sin as trespassing could be. As I read the Bible, I realized that the second version was not there.
Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-4) is not so poetic and flowery. But it contains the most curious line of either version. “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive all who are indebted to us.” A more literal translation would be: “And forgive our sins, for we forgive those who owe us money.” The NIV translates the word for sin by sin and the word for indebted by sin. Obviously, they knew that Jesus meant “debts” to be metaphorical. The way I hear some conservative evangelicals talk, we should only worry about “sins” because that was all Jesus cared about. But we should ask ourselves why would Jesus care only about sin and eternity and not about moral action in time? Was his literal death in time solely for spiritual application?
Is grace only limited to eternity? The question is oxymoronic. How can something eternal be limited? Conversely, how can something be eternal that is limited? The idea that merit is the basis of status is stupid. A baseball comparison works here. I taught my children that they were born on first base. And they would only have to hit one hit to reach second place. It took time to figure this out. The hadn’t made a base hit. They had a head start. Other people might be born on the second or third and act like they hit a double or a triple when they didn’t. Privilege got them where they started, not merit.
Busting the myth
Meritocracy is the myth that allows people to believe that there was an innate goodness in them because of who their parents were. The myth is that you earn your way to whatever level you reach. The problem is, as my kids used to say, people with one leg up go uphill faster. The myth is exploded when student debt is forgiven because life in our world doesn’t work that way. If someone paying off a student loan gets sick, gives birth to a child with special needs, has to take time off to care for a family member, or loses their job when the business leaves town, the loan may be suspended by providing essential temporary services. relief. But, like a personal loan, this period of non-payment is held against the borrower. They pay for temporary help.
The amounts borrowed are not equal. Public and private universities have different prices. Students who are encouraged to attend a private college because of a small scholarship offered end up paying more after the first year. Students never see the money. They just sign papers. The money goes to the school and is distributed by the school. The student gets the debt.
Sin Soaked Loans
Loans themselves are the antithesis of meritocracy. Parents of some students can and do pay for everything. Some pay part of the fees. Parents’ ability to pay is taken into account in the financial assistance program. However, parents are not obliged to pay anything. Often they cannot. Sometimes they don’t want to pay. Another loan at a higher interest rate, not guaranteed by the federal government, is then offered to the student. Lenders are in legal heaven. They are untouchable even when predatory. Borrowers cannot benefit from bankruptcy protection and are in legal hell. They must be delivered from this body of death. President Biden has taken a small step in the right direction. But recognizing that the veneer of meritocracy was under threat, he began to “give tough love” to borrowers about forbearance. We need leaders with the courage to take it down and rebuild higher education.