The Morality of Forgiving Student Loan Debt

The Morality of Forgiving Student Loan Debt

President Biden’s plan to forgive student loans has prompted a national discussion, and the Jesuit publication America Magazine has offered its view, titled “The Biblical Case for Forgiving Student Loan Debt.” The essay did not offer a fresh perspective, but instead one published well over a year ago on January 4, 2021. Such recycling suggests the editors were extremely confident that the original was well thought-out and documented. Let’s check and see.

The author of the essay claims that progressive Democrats are on the side of Scripture. In sharp contrast, he says, Republicans, especially conservative ones, tend to ignore the wisdom of Scripture and focus narrowly on “modern economic doctrines.” The logic of conservatives, he explains, is that students’ debts should NOT be forgiven because they “presumably knew” what they were “getting themselves into” when they got the loans, so bailing them out would “reward poor financial decisions” and incentivize “intemperate behaviors.”

He cites in particular Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education, as believing forgiveness of student debt is “immoral.” He proceeds to chastise her for claiming to be a Christian while ignoring Scripture on the forgiveness of debts. He then explains what he considers the biblical case for forgiving student loan debt. He offers as evidence three passages from Scripture:

1) Mosaic law that required that all debts be canceled every seven years: “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts.  And this is the regulation for the release of debts: every creditor is to forgive what he has loaned to his neighbor; he shall not require it of his neighbor and his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed.” (Deut 15:1-2)

2) The Lord’s Prayer: “. . . And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors . . .” (Matt 6:12)

3) Jesus’ parable of two debtors: “’A moneylender had two debtors: the one owed five hundred denarii, and the other, fifty.  When they were unable to repay, he canceled the debts of both. So which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered and said, ‘I assume the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.’ And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You have judged correctly.’” (Luke 7:41-43).

At first consideration, the author’s evidence may seem impeccable: not one or two but three passages from Scripture, all specifically on the forgiveness of debts. However, on closer examination that evidence is badly flawed.

To begin with, lending and borrowing were different in ancient times. Debt was generally owed to the monarch and in most cases did not concern borrowing money but having an obligation to provide animals, crops, or labor. Moreover, the person responsible for paying the debt was the one who contracted it (or members of his family), not one or more strangers who lived in another part of the kingdom. In addition, the payment of the debt fulfilled the laws or customs of the time rather than violating them. The latter difference is crucial; it is the difference between justice and injustice, morality and immorality, legality and illegality.

I find it interesting that the author offered three citations from Scripture but ignored the one that is as relevant today as when it was given, despite the passing of time and the changes in culture—the Eighth Commandment of God, “Thou shalt not steal.”

Both the author of the America essay and the progressive Democrats he supports seem to misunderstand that stealing has different forms. Some are obvious, such as taking merchandise from a store, or robbing someone on the street, or breaking into a person’s home and removing her things. Less obvious but no less immoral is giving someone else’s money or belongings to another person without permission. Unfortunately, the latter kind of stealing is seldom recognized as a violation of the eighth commandment but is instead seen as an act of charity. Those who engage in it are therefore more likely to feel virtuous than guilty, and more inclined to regard those who challenge them as insensitive, uncharitable, hypocritical, or even as agents of Satan!

The temptation to see giving away other people’s money as an act of charity, and to feel good about themselves for doing so, is understandably strongest among those with the power to do so; that is, those who hold political office, particularly those who lean toward profligate spending.

Whether Biden’s “progressive” plan to forgive student loan debt is biblically sound or a violation of the eighth commandment—an act of charity or of theft—can best be determined by considering the consequences it is likely to produce.

The main consequences are easy to determine. It will take money from people who were not fortunate enough to attend college, as well as from those who went to college and met the responsibility of repaying their loans, and give that money to other debtors. It will also provide colleges and universities with yet another invitation to increase the cost of higher education and make it less accessible to low and middle income Americans.

It’s hard to believe the author and the editors of the America essay overlooked such likely consequences eight months ago when the essay was first published. Perhaps they underestimated their importance. Even so, one would think they would have noticed and corrected that mistake before republishing the essay. Why they did not is difficult to imagine without being uncharitable. In any case, those consequences clearly suggest that the view of Betsy Devos and the other conservatives is more in keeping with Scripture than the views of the progressives, not less so.

Do the author and the editors of America Magazine owe Devos and the other conservatives an apology for falsely accusing them? Scripture says yes. In Jesus’ words,  “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar . . . be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

Copyright © 2022 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero