Growing up in the conservative Church of the Nazarene, there is a litany of hymns that I will never forget. Some anthems are bangers, but my least favorite anthem is “Jesus Paid it All” written by Elvina M. Hall. If you’re unfamiliar, the chorus goes, “Jesus paid for it all, I owe him everything.” What I really dislike about this hymn is that it allows us to imagine Jesus as a banker or creditor looking to collect loans.
When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray in Matthew 6, he tells us to pray for forgiveness of our debts and to forgive those who owe us. Jesus never asks for reimbursement. It’s Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Navient.
Right now many of us are thinking about debt cancellation after President Joe Biden announced he was considering canceling some student debt, although the amount and for whom still does the subject of debate.
During college and graduate school, I accumulated something like $50,000 in debt. So you imagine I would be particularly excited about the prospect of Biden forgiving me some of my debt. But I’ve already paid off my student loans! Does this mean that I regret that others make amends? Nope! I’m glad other people can get debt forgiveness even if it doesn’t apply to me.
Others in my position have expressed the view that it is “unfair” that some borrowers can have their loans canceled after they have done the hard work of repayment. Given these current conversations, I want to affirm that Christians should support the cancellation of student loan debt – as well as all debt in general – and that the sense of “unfairness” expressed by critics goes to the against Christian morality.
Some of my debt-free brothers and sisters have recently taken to social media to express their displeasure that Biden can write off student debt. For example, right-wing political commentator and multi-millionaire Laura Ingraham recently went viral trying to score cultural war points with conservatives as she insisted paying off student debt matters. Ingraham argues that the ‘loan cancellation’ is an ‘insult to those who play by the rules’.
Of course, Ingraham is a crank, and we can ignore it. But Ingraham’s logic is a distillation of the argument: “I struggled to repay my loans and it would be unfair if others didn’t have to struggle like me.” I can sympathize with this feeling because my family and I struggled to repay my loans – it wouldn’t have been possible at all if my parents and partner hadn’t been involved. But, at its core, this argument about “fairness” is a pernicious type of capitalist brain rot. Can we rely on the “fairness” of a system that necessarily exploits and overwhelms the poor and working classes as a feature, not a bug?
The argument that debts must be repaid should not make sense to Christians. Christianity is a religion that revolves around the idea that sin is a kind of debt that we are born with, and it is fundamentally beyond our ability to repay that debt. But throughout the Bible, God forgives our debt and demands that we forgive the debts of others. For Christians, the so-called “equity” argument regarding debt cancellation is a heresy rooted in capitalist ideology.
Before examining how the Bible defines fairness and justice, it is important to consider how philosophers have defined fairness. Sometimes equity is confused with a type of “flat equality”. One way to think about flat equality would be: everyone gets a cookie and that’s it. But what if not everyone needs or wants a cookie? What if someone has a big family and needs two cookies? These questions help us realize that while flat equality sounds good in theory, it leaves something to be desired in practice.
To complicate the flat equality argument, political philosopher John Rawls argues that on a social level, we can think of justice as a type of fairness. Justice, for Rawls, is about ensuring that society is fair and that no one is inherently disadvantaged because of factors they did not choose.
Rawls is most closely associated with the “veil of ignorance” thought experiment. The basic idea is that we should structure society fairly so that even if you were unaware of your social and economic position, you would still choose to live in that society. The aim of the thought experiment is to create a society that everyone would choose, even if they find themselves among the most disadvantaged. But it is not only Rawls and other political philosophers who have considered issues of fairness and justice. The Bible also has a particular ethos around fairness and economic justice.
The Bible helps us identify some general themes regarding debt and the economy. If we were tracing economic themes in the Bible, we might start with debt and the “sabbatical year” in Deuteronomy (15).
God commands the people of Israel to practice debt cancellation as an economic reset at the end of every seven years. And at the end of a cycle of seven Sabbatical years there is a greater year of Jubilee. It doesn’t matter if you worked hard or not at all in the period leading up to the Sabbatical year or the Jubilee – your debt must be forgiven just the same (Leviticus 25:8-12).
Deuteronomy even warns against being “insensitive” when it comes to “needy neighbors” during the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. The author of Deuteronomy explains that the land and wealth in question were given by God and should therefore be held freely. Being stingy with our possessions makes us forget who provides for our needs in the first place.
The theme of debt forgiveness continues in the Gospels: Jesus forgives Zacchaeus’ debts, prompting Zacchaeus to forgive his debtors (Luke 19:1-10). And in Matthew 6:12, Jesus tells his disciples to pray that God “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” It’s common for Christians to think of sin as something purely metaphysical, but the Bible is pretty clear that sin manifests itself materially.
For example, the prophet Isaiah does not mince words about the severity of God’s wrath toward the rich and powerful who “rob the poor.” When it comes to the forgiveness of sins, we should always think of sin. Sin should not only be thought of as vertical—a rupture between an individual and God. Sin must also be considered horizontal and systemic — a disconnect between individuals and the systems that organize our world.
Despite the strong biblical imperative that debts be forgiven, many characters in the Bible reject debt forgiveness or other types of progressive forms of economic justice. These characters, similar to some people today, often present their argument against debt cancellation from the perspective of “fairness.”
For example, in Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a parable titled “Workers in a Vineyard,” which links the kingdom of God to the story of a landowner who hires a handful of laborers throughout his the day at different times – some work a full day while others only work an hour. The tension arises when the landowner chooses to pay the same wage to all workers. Another example is found in Luke 15:11-32, where Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son. The kingdom of God is like a son who has squandered his inheritance; when he gets home, his father still greets him and throws him a big party despite his irresponsible moral and financial decisions.
In both of these parables, the characters complain about fairness. Like some people today, they believe that flat equality and fairness are synonymous. One of the workers complains to the owner that the others have not done as much work and should therefore be paid less (Matthew 20:12). But the landowner rejects this complaint and frames questions of economic equity in terms of generous justice (Matthew 20:12-16). Similarly, in the parable of the prodigal son, the eldest brother of the prodigal son complains to his father that he worked hard all the time his younger brother left wasting money. But the father makes it clear that he is glad his son has returned and past transgressions are forgotten. The father explains to the older brother that he is celebrating “’because your brother was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and was found” (Luke 15:32). In both stories we get a picture of the kind of economy God has in mind: an economy without scarcity, struggle or exploitation.
Debt forgiveness stories like these make it clear: what we deserve is not based on how much work we do or what we can produce; instead, our value lies in the fact that we were created by God. The moral of these stories is that no matter what you did or what wrong decisions you made — God forgives our debts because there is no shortage of grace in the kingdom of heaven.
Capitalism lies to us about who we are and that there isn’t enough for everyone. We are not just workers. We are not only as good as the jobs we have. Our paycheck does not show us our worth and our debts do not show our shortcomings. To believe just the opposite is to give in to the lie of capitalism, which seeks to keep us bound, working and fighting for a system that prefers to bury us rather than see us free from its exploitation.
The looming possibility of President Biden canceling student debt should encourage Christians – especially those of us who have already paid off our debt – to ask ourselves which Bible characters we want to be: do we want to be whiny workers? Do we want to be the jealous big brother? Or do we want to be like God who refuses to accept that “fairness” is flat equality? Whether I like the hymn or not, it is true that Jesus paid for it all. But rather than being indebted to Jesus as if he were a heavenly lender, we owe it to each other to strive for forgiveness of our debts of sin.