While President Biden’s announcement of student-debt forgiveness elicited shouts of joy from many of the 43 million Americans who could experience relief under his plan, Republicans have responded by declaring their opposition to the very idea of debt forgiveness. Biden was accused by Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader. “socialism,”It was declared a by Dan Meuser (Pennsylvania Representative). “moral hazard” to forgive “self imposed debt.” For decades, Republicans have claimed to champion biblical values, and MAGA enthusiasts like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene have more recently embraced the goal of a “Christian nation.” But nothing exposes the hypocrisy of Christian nationalism more than Republicans’ knee-jerk reaction against debt forgiveness. This is what Jesus instructed his followers to pray about.
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” is more than a line from the Lord’s Prayer that children memorize in Sunday school. For practicing Christians, it is a regular reminder of the Jubilee tradition that Jesus embraced in his first sermon in Luke’s gospel. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus declared from the prophet Isaiah, “and has anointed me to proclaim… the favorable year of the Lord.” As his 1st-century hearers knew, Jesus was referring to the debt forgiveness laid out in Leviticus 25, which prescribes a regular social practice of clearing debts in order to correct for the accumulated injustice of an unequal distribution of resources in society. The idea doesn’t come from Karl Marx, as McConnell suggests, but from ancient Scripture.
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It’s amazing to us that many of the same people who consistently vote for corporate tax breaks and policies that give more money to our wealthiest neighbors cry “socialism” when anyone proposes relief to poor people who are saddled by debt. Reactionary defence of wealth is a violation of Biblical values, which we consider to be the opposite of what biblical people vowed to do.
Although the Jubilee appears to be a direct command from Scripture, scholars debate whether it was practiced more often in ancient Israel. But the economic historian Michael Hudson, who has directed a decades-long study at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, argues in his book …and forgive them their debts that the notion of Jubilee wasn’t simply an ideal for ancient Israel, but rather a practical lesson learned during the Babylonian exile. Ancient Mesopotamian societies had learned from experience that crippling debt was an inevitable consequence of lending at interest (what the Bible calls “usury”). For the good of the whole, a practice of “Clean Slate” debt forgiveness emerged to keep society functioning. The children of Israel came to understand this practice as God’s design.
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Even though people can differ on policies, they are still good friends. While some conservatives have expressed concern that Biden’s debt-forgiveness plan could exacerbate inflation, we side with those who argue that the Administration should do more, along with Congressional action, to address extreme inequality and the racial wealth gap in America. By forgiving twice as much for borrowers who qualified for Pell Grants as undergraduates, Biden’s plan does target relief to low-income families, which are disproportionately Black, brown, Asian, and Native. Its protection against future interest rates is also important. Interest will be forgiven for borrowers who contribute 5% of their monthly income to repay the undergraduate loans. The interest will not be owed to low-income borrowers whose income is less than 225% of that federal poverty limit until the amount reaches a living wage. They are also steps towards an economy that allows people to go to work each day and be able to provide for their family, as well as take some time to relax and enjoy one another’s company.
But it’s not enough. Pell Grant recipients who are not eligible for Pell Grants must pay $20,000 to avoid leaving debt-laden millions. We must remove the debt burdens from those most in need of Jubilee to reap the benefits of the Jubilee.
As Christian pastors, we know that the false promise of a “Christian nation” has persuaded millions of Americans to support policies that hurt God’s people. In a multi-faith democracy, we don’t need our faith to be privileged by state power. Every faith is welcome to help us envision our common future. Christians, Jews and Muslims share the tradition of debt forgiveness. This vision offers powerful solutions to historic inequality which currently threatens our economy. It’s no surprise that defenders of the wealthy elite are crying “socialism.” Their forebearers attacked New Deal and Great Society programs along the same lines. But moral movements throughout our nation’s history have made the case that moral policies that lift from the bottom are good for all of us.
Biden’s student-loan forgiveness plan won’t bring the Jubilee we pray for every day, but it’s a step in the right direction. Some of us would love to hear the President and other Democrats talk more about how policies like this help poor and low-income people, not just the “working class.” Such public commitments to the common good can go a long way toward motivating voters who don’t believe politicians from any party care about them. If a moral movement of people committed to the common good can rally for the midterms, this week’s action shows that the Biden Administration is ready and willing to push further toward an economy that works for all of us in 2023. That’s a vision we pray more Americans can get behind.
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