- ROGER’S NAME
Going through RNS
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced a sweeping plan to deal with the student loan crisis in the United States, including provisions for debt cancellation and an extension of the federal payment pause.
This announcement generated polarizing Christian responses on social media with #studentloanforgiveness as the top trending hashtag on Twitter. Many Christians applauded the proposal, citing Pentateuchal deliverance laws such as “Every seven years you shall grant forgiveness of debts” (Deuteronomy 15:1, all NRSV Bible quotes). Others condemned the proposal, stating that it violates accountability and fairness, and turning to texts such as “The wicked borrow and do not return” (Psalm 37:21). One of the most prominent Christian voices against debt cancellation, Albert Mohler, claimed student loan forgiveness is a breach of justice and a ‘moral hazard’ because it incites bad behavior.
PHOTO: Kyle Gregory Devaras/Unsplash/Creative Commons.
So what exactly does the Bible say about loan forgiveness? Before you tweet your rant, you have to remember that student loans didn’t exist in ancient Israel. In fact, the economic worlds of the Bible are alien to our modern sensibilities. For most of biblical history, money had not yet been invented. Economic decisions on matters such as vocation, housing, and marriage were largely predetermined based on the needs of kinship. A household’s greatest asset was a modest piece of land. Agriculture dominated economic production.
“So what exactly does the Bible say about loan forgiveness? Before you tweet your rant, you need to remember that college student loans weren’t a thing in ancient Israel. In fact, the worlds economics of the Bible are alien to our modern sensibilities. . For most of biblical history, money had not yet been invented.”
The Bible verses regarding loan forgiveness should be interpreted in this context. Both wills show that the loans were common. But these loans were largely for subsistence survival. Agrarian life was unstable and subject to the whims of the rain. The plague was a constant worry. In this context, loans were a safety measure to provide some degree of economic protection to households during the crisis years. Ideally, a family could borrow money or grain in the hope that the surplus from the next harvest could repay the loans.
But people were often lacking. Droughts could last for several years in Israel. Wars could deplete the supply of labor while destroying crops as a casualty of siege fighting. Kings could levy heavy taxes. In times of financial hardship, people have turned to loan agreements. Often they had extremely high interest rates, as households were in desperate need of provisions. The total debt would increase exponentially. There was no bankruptcy protection, and upon death the loans simply passed on to the next generation. Failure to pay would lead to slavery.
In this context, Deuteronomy 15:1 presents an alternative to the cycle of debt, calling for regular “remission,” or forgiveness. The passage gives justification for this debt bondage, “Because the Lord will surely bless you” (Deuteronomy 15:4b). The larger context of Deuteronomy states that obedience to God and commitment to one’s neighbor are central to the covenant with God. A similar spirit of compassion as a component of the divine covenant appears in other debt relief laws in the Torah, such as Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35, and Deuteronomy 20:19.
The same spirit is embedded in stories like the fourth chapter of II Kings, when Elisha gives vessels of oil to a widow so she can save her two children from debt slavery. The Judeans adopt a similar sentiment in Nehemiah 5:1-13 as they pledge to completely cancel their debt because “some of our daughters have been taken away” (Nehemiah 5:5). This spirit of compassion underlies the phrase of the most famous prayer in the Gospels: “And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Are these biblical examples also violations of justice?
Conversely, Psalm 37 is of a different genre and a different context. As a Psalm, it is poetic, with heavy language and rich imagery. This Psalm is addressed to those who suffer because of the “wicked” (37:1ff). These “wicked” torment the marginalized, especially those who are “poor and needy” (37:14). “The wicked borrow and do not return” (37:21) is neither a commandment nor a proverb, but just an observation about those “wicked” people, who provoke violence and oppress. Whatever one might extrapolate regarding student loan forgiveness, it is inaccurate to equate the “bad guys” with someone struggling with mounting student debt. On the contrary, in this Psalm, God comforts the oppressed.
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Biblical texts should not be checked to support contrary opinions on this student debt relief proposal. We should not treat the Bible as an extremely thick reference manual, in search of the singular verse to weaponize against ideological opponents. The Bible is so much more sophisticated and complex and nuanced and mysterious. The Bible is not even a book, but a collection of books, written and edited over several centuries in three different languages on three different continents. Our Bible readings should be sensitive to the diverse perspectives and unique historical contexts within said readings. To take a single verse in support or protest against any modern legislation violates the very character of the Bible.
At the same time, biblical interpretation need not be so complicated. Maybe Bible reading should just start with reading any literature. We read for pleasure and enrichment. As Christians, we should read the Bible in order to better flourish as human beings under God’s creation. We should read the Bible paying attention to its own genres, be they narratives, poetry, legal texts, liturgical lamentations or even (gasp!) census records. More importantly, we must read the Bible in community with others and give generous attention to those who may understand the same text in different ways.
Then we can appreciate that the Bible offers theological sophistication in the simplest way. In these readings, larger themes and patterns emerge. Some examples? What about the call to compassion, to covenant, to loving-kindness? How about embracing the role of caretaker for our brother and sister? These are the biblical values that should inform Christian perspectives on student debt relief…and any other issue.
Roger S Nam is a Hebrew Bible teacher, Emory University Candler School of Theology. A financial analyst before taking an interest in biblical studies, Nam focuses his research on the economies of the ancient Near East.