Growing up in the conservative Church of the Nazarene, there is a litany of hymns that I’ll never get out of my brain. Some hymns are bangers, but my least favorite hymn is “Jesus Paid it All” written by Elvina M. Hall. If you're unfamiliar, the chorus says, “Jesus paid it all, All to Him I owe.” What I really dislike about this hymn is that it allows us to imagine Jesus as a banker or creditor who is looking to collect on loans.
When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray in Matthew 6, he tells us to pray for the forgiveness of our debts and to forgive those who are in debt to us. Jesus never asks for repayment. He’s Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Navient.
At the moment, many of us are thinking about debt forgiveness after President Joe Biden announced that he is considering forgiving some amount of student debt, though how much and for whom is still being debated.
During my time in college and graduate school, I accumulated something like $50,000 in debt. So, you’d imagine I would be particularly excited about the prospect of Biden forgiving some of my debt. But I already paid off my student loans! Does that mean I rue others getting theirs forgiven? No! I am happy that other people may receive debt forgiveness even if it doesn’t apply to me.
Others in my position have voiced the opinion that it’s “unfair” that some borrowers could have their loans forgiven while they did the hard work of repayment. Considering these current conversations, I want to argue that Christians should support forgiving student loan debt — as well as all debt in general — and that the feeling of “unfairness” expressed by detractors runs counter to Christian morality.
Some of my fellow debt-free siblings have recently taken to social media to voice their displeasure about the prospect that Biden may forgive some student debt. For example, right-wing political commentator and multimillionaire Laura Ingraham recently went viral trying to score culture war points with conservatives as she insisted that repaying student debt is important. Ingraham argues that “loan forgiveness” is an “insult to those who play by the rules.”
Of course, Ingraham is a crank, and we can ignore her. But Ingraham’s logic is a distillation of the following argument: “I struggled to pay off 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 have struggled to pay my loans back — it wouldn’t have been possible at all if it weren’t for my parents and my partner pitching in. 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 burdens poor and working-class people as a feature, not a bug?
The argument that debts need to be repaid shouldn’t make any sense to Christians. Christianity is a religion that revolves around the idea that sin is a kind of debt we are born with, and it is fundamentally beyond our capacity to pay off this debt. But throughout the Bible, God forgives our debt and demands that we forgive the debts of others. For Christians, the so-called “fairness” argument regarding debt forgiveness is a heresy that finds its roots in capitalist ideology.
Before examining how the Bible defines fairness and justice, it’s important to consider the ways philosophers have defined fairness. Sometimes, fairness gets confused with a type of “flat equality.” One way to think about flat equality would be the following: Everyone gets one cookie and that’s it. But what if not every person needs or wants a cookie? What if someone has a bigger family and needs two cookies? These questions help us realize that while flat equality sounds good in theory, it leaves something to be desired on a practical level.
To complicate the flat equality argument, the political philosopher John Rawls argues that at the 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 due to factors they didn’t choose.
Rawls is most closely associated with the thought experiment “the veil of ignorance.” The basic idea is that we should structure society fairly so that even if you were not aware of your social and economic standing, you would still choose to live in that society. The goal of the thought experiment is to create a society that every person would choose, even if they may 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 ethic around fairness and economic justice.
The Bible helps us determine some big-picture themes concerning debt and the economy. If we were tracing economic themes in the Bible, the first place we might start is with debt and “the sabbatical year” in Deuteronomy (15).
God commands the people of Israel to practice debt forgiveness as an economic reset at the end of every seven years. And at the end of a cycle of seven sabbatical years, there’s one larger year of Jubilee. It doesn’t matter if you've worked hard or not at all in the time preceding the sabbatical year or Jubilee — your debt is to be forgiven all the same (Leviticus 25:8-12).
Deuteronomy even warns against being “hard-hearted” when it comes to “needy neighbors” during sabbatical years and Jubilee. The writer of Deuteronomy explains that the land and wealth in question were given by God and should therefore be held loosely. To be miserly about our possessions causes us to forget about the one who provides for our needs in the first place.
The theme of debt forgiveness extends into the gospels: Jesus forgives the debts of Zacchaeus which prompts 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 solely metaphysical, but the Bible is pretty clear that sin manifests materially.
For example, the prophet Isaiah does not mince words about the severity of God’s anger toward the rich and powerful who “rob the poor.” When it comes to the forgiveness of sins, we should think systemically about sin. Sin shouldn’t only be thought of as vertical — a rupture between an individual and God. Sin should also be thought of as horizontal and systemic — a rupture between both individuals and the systems that organize our world.
Despite the strong biblical imperative that debts are to be forgiven, there are numerous characters in the Bible that reject debt forgiveness or other types of progressive forms of economic justice. These characters, similar to some people today, often make their argument against debt forgiveness from the vantage point of “fairness.”
For example, in Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a parable called about “laborers in a vineyard,” which relates the kingdom of God to a story about a landowner who hires a handful of workers throughout the day at different times — some work a full day while others work for only an hour. The tension comes when the landowner chooses to pay all the workers the same wages. 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 returns home, his father still greets him and throws him a big party regardless of his irresponsible moral and financial decisions.
In both of these parables, characters complain about fairness. Like some people today, they believe flat equality and fairness are synonymous. One of the workers complains to the landowner that the others haven’t done as much work and should therefore be paid less (Matthew 20:12). But the landowner rebuffs this complaint and frames matters of economic fairness in terms of a generous justice (Matthew 20:12-16). Similarly, in the parable of the prodigal son, the prodigal son’s older brother complains to his father that he’s been working hard the entire time his younger brother has been away wasting money. But the father makes it clear that he’s happy that his son has returned and that the past transgressions are forgotten. The father explains to the older brother that he is celebrating “‘because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found’” (Luke 15:32). In both stories, we get a picture of the type of economy God has in mind: one without scarcity, struggle, or exploitation.
Debt forgiveness stories like these make it clear: What we deserve is not based on how much we work or what we can produce; instead, our worth is found in the fact that we were created by God. The moral of these stories is that it doesn’t matter what you have done or the bad decisions you have made — God forgives our debts because there is no scarcity of grace in the kingdom of heaven.
Capitalism lies to us about who we are and how there’s not enough to go around. We aren’t just workers. We aren’t only as good as the jobs we have. Our paycheck does not show us our worth and our debts do not show our deficiencies. To believe anything opposite is to give in to the lie of capitalism which seeks to keep us bound up, working and struggling for a system that would rather bury us than see us free of its exploitation.
The looming possibility of President Biden forgiving student debt should encourage Christians — especially those of us who have already paid off our debt — to ask ourselves which characters in the Bible we want to be: Do we want to be the whiny laborers? Do we want to be the jealous older 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 it all. But rather than owing a debt to Jesus as if he is some celestial lender, we owe it to one another to struggle for the forgiveness of our sinful debts.