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Forgive Us Our Debts

Should the federal government be the forgiveness business? That seems to be the question following President Joe Biden’s announcement that he will be kinda sorta fulfilling a campaign promise. On Wednesday, Biden declared that he would forgiving up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for people who made less than $125,000 annually and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients.

Predictably, people have a lot of feelings about this. Lawyers are hemming and hawing over the legality of the move. Economists are debating its impact on inflation. Wonks are looking at the tea leaves for what this might mean for midterms. All of those are a little beyond the purview of this particular website.

But Biden’s move also brings up the subject of grace and forgiveness. Who gets to be forgiven? Who gets to offer forgiveness? And what does the Christian ethic of forgiveness have to do with student loans?

To begin with, it is definitely notable that both Testaments in the Bible are filled with language about forgiveness of a material nature. We often think of forgiveness as an intangible exercise — you offend me, but I forgive you and agree to not make a whole thing out of it, and that’s the end of it. That’s certainly part of forgiveness, but biblically, forgiveness often takes place in the physical world and involves real things: money, material, land and food.

Take Nehemiah 5, in which women cry out to Nehemiah for justice because they “have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields.” They couldn’t get out from under these debts, and were “powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”

Nehemiah is “very angry” about this, and berates the officials over it. “What you are doing is not right,” he says. “Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? …Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them.”

This passage is notable for a few reasons. First, we have every indication that these people took on this debt willingly. Nobody forced them to go into debt. They presumably knew the rules when they took on the debt. And yet, Nehemiah is incensed — not with them, for taking on more debt than they could pay, but with those who lent them money for charging interest.

Second, it’s notable that Nehemiah instructs the lenders to forgive the debts and return the interest payments. He didn’t ask them nicely. He didn’t ask for them to do this out of the goodness of their hearts. This was a direct order.

And in all of this, there was a real, deliberate transfer of money. The forgiveness had real, tangible consequences.

This is just one example from a Bible full of examples of people whose financial debts were erased. Of course, in the Hebrew Bible, God instructs the Israelites to cancel debts regularly. “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts,” the Hebrews are instructed in Deuteronomy 15. “This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed.” This is why Jesus could pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” with confidence. He knew regular forgiveness of debts was baked into his audience’s financial worldview.

You can certainly argue that not every element of Levitical law should be copy and pasted into U.S. policy (I definitely would), but the law is also useful for showing us the heart of God. And it is hard to escape the notion that God cares about canceling financial debt and believes that it is an important part of a flourishing community. God cares about this so much that it was a law. Again, a direct order.

The compulsory nature of this should be underlined because it flies in the face of an objection you often hear about government charity. The objection in question goes something like, “It’s all very well if decide to be generous with my money, but the government shouldn’t force me to be generous.”

This is very odd pushback on a few fronts. To begin with, in this particular case, you aren’t being forced to do anything. The government is the one owed debts, and the government is choosing to forgive those debts. The total amount of student debt being forgiven is too small to have any appreciable impact on your current rate of taxation, and since our taxes are used to fund any number of moral outrageous on any given day, this seems like a vanishingly rare case of them being used to do some good and for that we can be grateful. It is a golden opportunity to, as Galatians puts it, Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

But more to the point, the idea that nobody should force you to be generous just isn’t backed up with Scripture. People were compelled into generosity all the time. We should certainly be on the lookout for government overreach, but it’s hard to make an argument that our elected leaders shouldn’t use their authority to alleviate the burden of those saddled with crippling debt.

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All of these points smack uncomfortably of the man who asked Jesus “but who is my neighbor?” It feels like looking for a loophole, a good excuse to not rejoice with those who rejoice. You can argue against the economic wisdom of it, the political savvy or legal standing of it. But it seems a little un-Christian to argue that forgiving debts is a bad thing.

Maybe the loudest objection to this is the question of fairness. Many Americans, myself included, have paid off our college debt. Some of us worked hard and did it alone. Some of us had help. But all of us now watch others receive a heaping helping of federal money that we ourselves did not get. That doesn’t seem fair.

There’s not really a great rebuttal to that. It’s not fair. That’s the way of forgiveness, the upside down nature of the Kingdom of God, in which the chief currency will always be grace. The grace of God is spiritually ludicrous, and so our own grace might as well be absurd as well. In fact, the more absurd it is, the closer it might get to its divine essence.

Think of Jesus’ parable of laborers. A man who owns a vineyard goes out early in the morning to hire a few workers, promising them fair wages. They agree and get to work. The owner, still short on hands, makes a few more trips into town throughout the workday, rounding up more laborers to get the job done. And when the sun sets at the end of the day, he pays everyone the same amount, whether they’ve been working since sunrise or for just an hour or two.

The people who worked longest are upset. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat,” they complain in Matthew 20. But the vineyard owner is firm. “Friend, I am doing you no wrong,” he says. “Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

You might argue that this parable was meant to teach a spiritual lesson instead of a business plan. That’s undoubtedly true, but it’s also small-minded to think that Jesus’ parables can’t operate on multiple levels. The parable of the Good Samaritan not only shows God’s mercy for the wayward but also provides parents with a good blueprint for how to treat their children. The parable of the talents only works because its spiritual advice is as sound as its financial advice. And this parable of the vineyards teaches us something about how we ought to act around those who receive what sure looks like unmerited favor.

Because unmerited favor is the stitching of the Christian faith. It’s something we don’t deserve, a mercy that infuriates anyone trying to keep the cosmic scales in balance. And every act of mercy can be an echo of God’s great plan of redemption, in which the last will ever and always be first.

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