What does biblical religion teach about canceling loan debts?

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THE QUESTION:

What does biblical religion teach about canceling loan debts?

THE RELIGIOUS GUY’S RESPONSE:

President Biden’s pre-election executive order to limit or erase student loan debt is back in the news this week. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its “highly uncertain” estimate that the plan will cost at least $420 billion, the first federal lawsuits against it arguing that only Congress can legally enact spending, and the Department of Education has reduced the numbers who qualify for this benefit.

The president claims the power to bypass Congress under the “HEROES Act”, passed after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which allows for pardons in the event of “a military operation or national emergency”. Biden interprets the COVID pandemic as such an emergency; critics call it a stretch.

Biden says now “people can finally start crawling under this mountain of debt to pay their rent and their utilities, to finally think about buying a house or starting a family or starting a business.” But on a Wednesday the wall street journal the editorial called the cancellations “unfair to Americans who paid off their loans or didn’t go to college” and accused Biden of “the greatest executive usurpation of Congress in modern history.”

As all of this unfolds, does the Bible, which has so long shaped moral judgments about public policy, have anything to say about these issues? ? Liberal Protestant blogger John Pavlovitz chastised Christians who oppose Biden, saying they ignore that “their whole professed religion is based on the idea of ​​a canceled debt. Way to lose the plot, kids. Podcaster Allie Beth Stuckey responded for World magazine that “the debt is sin, and Jesus, God made flesh, willingly paid it in our place by his death on a cross” so that “we may be reconciled to God forever”.

A formulation of the most recited prayer in history asks God to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”. In The residents magazine,” which advocates “racial and social justice” on “biblical” grounds, Braxton Brewington of the Debt Collective writes that the Lord’s Prayer teaches “the abolition of debt,” so the United States should be fine. beyond Biden’s plan, by wiping out all student debt. and all credit card balances owed for “medical care, rent, and other basic needs.”

The conventional Christian interpretation is that the Lord’s Prayer concerns the spiritual and moral failures of each individual, not financial affairs, although it may involve societal as well as personal sins. Consider also Jesus’ well-known parable of the merciless servant in Matthew 18:21-35.

Of course, the Old and New Testaments are filled with warnings to help those caught in economic distress. And remarkably, the scriptures prescribe complete forgiveness of debts during the “Sabbatical year,” as Deuteronomy 15:1-2 (JPS Translation) shows: “In every seventh year you shall practice the forgiveness of debts. Such will be the nature of the remission: each creditor will remit the due which he claims to his fellow man; he will not blame his fellow man or his relative, for the proclaimed remission comes from the Eternal. . . “

Why? That “there shall be no needy among you” in the promised land. Note that the cancellation of debt did not apply to non-Israelites and the nation was told not to become a debtor, which is how the Book of Proverbs advised individuals. There were limits to remission, and when the system became unworkable, influential 1st Century BCE, Rabbi Hillel the Elder devised a workaround as the courts largely took over the management of debts, while a literal reading only applied Deuteronomy to individual creditors.

Why seven years? It is a sacred number seen in the seven days of creation and the unique seven day week of scripture which ends with a carefree Sabbath of earning a living. In addition, the biblical seven times seven Jubilee returned ancestral lands and freed indentured slaves (see Leviticus 25), although it is historically unclear whether this was a broad observance or only of an ideal.

In an article prior to Biden, Denver religious bankruptcy attorney Rob Cohen said Deuteronomy’s old seven-year pardon rhythm is reflected in US law, where individuals can file for protection from bankruptcy and seek legal discharge of their debts every eight years. Cohen thinks the Bible and modern bankruptcy law dictate that “no one should spend his entire life saddled with unmanageable debt. You can request help once you are out of options. . . . Bankruptcy should be a last resort for those in serious financial difficulty, but when necessary, it is not unethical in the eyes of the Bible.

Concern for people in financial difficulty also animated Exodus 22:24 (or 25): “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, do not act towards them as a creditor; do not charge any interest from them. See also Leviticus 25:35-37. Christianity generally forbade all interest charging until commercially minded Protestants, and eventually Catholics, returned to the Bible’s original emphasis on interest paid by “the poor” and, by extension , on anyone’s unfair overload. (Islam forbids any charging of interest to this day.)

David French, a key evangelical religious liberty attorney turned reporter at thedispatch.com (who left Harvard Law with an $80,000 debt), writes that a Christian case can be made for Biden’s idea, but he there is also a good case against. The Bible emphasizes helping in situations of “deep” economic oppression, such as bankruptcy, he says. Thus, he objects that the Biden order “benefits America’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens” while 320 million people are paying to benefit 30 million college kids.

He cites one such complaint from Harvard economist Jason Furman, who chaired President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. French supports the pardon plan to help needy students that will include legally necessary action by Congress. His full proposal is at https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/is-there-a-christian-case-for-bidens/


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