In August, President Joe Biden announced his administration would cancel $10,000 of student loan debt for every federal borrower and an additional $10,000 for any recipient of a federal Pell Grant. While this relief doesn’t go nearly far enough, it has the potential to completely wipe out student debt for 20 million Americans.
Seemingly surprised by this sweeping executive action, Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein took to Twitter to ask what the “best historical precedent” was for “canceling $10,000 in student debt per borrower”? While some mentioned the massive forgiving of Payment Protection Program loans or invoked bungled attempts in 2009 to relieve mortgage debt, perhaps the best historical precedent for broadly canceling debt dates back thousands of years ago — to the biblical practice of a Jubilee year.
In Leviticus 25, God instructs Moses and the people of Israel to institute a year of Jubilee. Every 50 years, at the blast of a trumpet, the Jubilee would mark a moral and economic shift in society: Slaves were set free, land was returned to its original owners, and any outstanding debts were eliminated (25:1-12). Similarly, in Deuteronomy 15, God says that every seven years, creditors should “remit the claim that is held against a neighbor” because “the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed.” In the New Testament, Jesus instructs his followers to pray “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4). Scripture is clear when it comes to debt abolition and the freeing of the debtor: God demands a society that delivers justice and freedom to all and rejects a society that physically and rhetorically shackles its people.
A central pillar of the Christian faith is that Jesus “paid” for all of our sins by sacrificing his life, zeroing out a debt we owed but could never repay. The Bible is drenched with a spirit of compassion and sympathy for the poor — and rails against the rich people who abuse them. In both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the Bible is squarely on the side of debtors.
And that’s what makes snide objections to student debt cancelation, particularly from people of faith, so stupefying and deeply hypocritical. Paul Begala, a devout Catholic and prominent Democratic political consultant who has spoken extensively on how his faith influences his politics, publicly criticized student debt cancellation, calling it “bad policy as well as bad politics.” On Real Time With Bill Maher, Begala stated that he felt like the policy was designed “to completely piss off the working class.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R.-Utah), a devout Mormon, called student debt relief a “bribe,” facetiously asking if we should next “[f]orgive auto loans? Forgive credit card debt? Forgive mortgages? What could possibly go wrong?”
Dave Ramsey, an evangelical Christian and prominent “debt-guru” radio show host, took issue with millions of Americans getting economic relief, calling it a “political move” that the Biden administration is doing to “get your attention and make you love them because the midterms are coming up.”
These naysayers aren’t just wrong, but they’re also falling into a scarcity trap that pits debtors against one another — as if debt-cancelation is a zero-sum-game where someone must lose for others to win. Begala, Romney, and Ramsey’s arguments are based in the belief that working class people, people who have paid off their debt, or people who are still in debt should oppose the forgiveness of debts — despite the fact that most Americans support it.
Economic relief should cause people of faith to rejoice, not grimace. It’s wide-scale debt, not the canceling of those debts, that presents a moral hazard to our society.
That’s why Biden canceling $10,000 of debt should only be the first pebble in a landslide of domestic and international debt abolition. First, Biden should instruct Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to eliminate the remainder of outstanding student loan debt which would narrow the racial wealth gap. Black and Latino Americans, and Black women especially, bear the brunt of this crushing burden, having been stripped of generational wealth and forced to obtain higher educational status to compete with white workers in the workplace. Today, 90 percent of Black students are forced to borrow federal dollars to attend college.
Debt is overtly racialized and gendered, and it also preys on the indigent as a tool of social control and punishment. Credit card debt for medical care, rent, and other basic needs should be canceled as well. Since wages have fallen behind the pace of productivity in recent decades, many Americans are forced to borrow to make ends meet.
Not only are we forcing people into debt for basic needs, but we’re also trapping people in debt while simultaneously trapping people in prison. The criminal legal system in the United States forces people to go into debt by charging incarcerated folks thousands of dollars to make phone calls or get clothing. The U.S. leads the world in incarceration, holding 20 percent of the world’s prison population and less than 5 percent of the global population. Congress outlawed debtors’ prisons and the Supreme Court deemed them unconstitutional in 1983, yet modern-day courts still jail poor people because they simply don’t have money.
Jesus identified with prisoners and said that God sent him “to proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18). The Debt Collective, a union of debtors I organize with, is taking scripture and this debt abolition work head-on. We are successfully pressuring local and federal governments to relieve student loan debt, school lunch debt, criminal legal debt, and more. Inspired by the Bible’s year of Jubilee, our own Rolling Jubilee Fund — the Debt Collective’s sister project that buys and erases household debt on the secondary market — has erased millions of dollars for working people.
But it’s going to take much more to bring about the full promise of the Jubilee. A chorus of unions (labor and debtor), advocates, clergy, and good Samaritans will have to work in concert to force the creditors’ hand. When Jesus drove out the moneychangers turning a profit in the temple, he didn’t politely ask them to leave. We too will have to flip over today’s proverbial tables, by going on necessary debt strikes, fighting back against predatory institutions, and renouncing our internalized shame that comes with indebtedness.
There is more than enough racial and economic justification for setting people and nations free of these immoral debts. The forgiveness of debt is a core principle of Christianity. As Romans 13:8 says, we should “let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (NIV).