Debt Forgiveness: A Moral Issue?
The concept of student debt forgiveness remains widely popular. One study reports 73% of those polled supported Biden’s recently announced program to forgive $10,000 of student loan debt for those making under $125,000/year. A more substantial poll conducted by Data for Progress indicates 60% of voters support the Federal government eliminating “all” or “some” student loan debt for every borrower. That figure jumps to 87% approval when limited to voters who are current student loan borrowers. A recent study by Emerson College Polling allows us to see a little more nuance: 36% believe forgiving $10,000 in student debt was too much action, 30% believe it was too little action, and 35% believe it was just the right amount of action.
Some of those most in favor of the program see it as a justice issue. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, representing Massachusett’s 7th congressional district, has variously referred to it as a “gender justice issue,” a “racial justice issue,” and an “economic justice issue.”
Nevertheless, many swiftly denounced the plan. In some sectors, the anger is palatable. The president of the Oil & Gas Workers Association, commenting on how blue color workers are now required to shoulder this additional debt, referred to it as “one more slap in the face from this administration.” David French, taking a more nuanced posture, nevertheless noted many supporters of Biden’s program “don’t appreciate the level of sacrifice that many folks endure to pay off or not take on student debt. And now to be asked to pay off other folks loans, including folks who are quite prosperous (or will soon be).” Batya Ungar-Sargon of Newsweek tweeted, “I just don’t know how these people making $100K a year look people in the face who change seniors’ bedpans for a living or drive a truck or work the railroad or stock grocery shelves or deliver their Amazon packages and say, ‘You, yes you, give me $10K.’ I just don’t get it.” Even President Biden, now a clear champion of the program, nevertheless stated back in 2021, “The idea that you go to [the University of Pennsylvania] and you’re paying a total of $70,0000 bucks a year and the public should pay for that? I don’t agree.”
Others oppose the program because they believe it gives preferential treatment to “elites.” The University of Pennsylvania estimated that between 69-73% of the debt forgiven will go to households in the top 60% of income distribution. Recent data indicates that the average college graduate income is 74.5% higher than high school graduates, with the college graduate unemployment rate being only 2.4%. The Prindle Institute recently argued that since 45% of white Americans have undergraduate degrees compared to just 29% of black Americans, the debt forgiveness program may very well narrow the racial wealth gap between college graduates but it will most likely increase the racial wealth gap between Americans overall. To complicate things further, Marshall Steinbum (an economics professor at the University of Utah) notes that such figures obscure the dramatic shift that has taken place in education and the workforce over the last few decades, resulting in greater difficulty getting a job without educational credentials. He adds, “that idea that student debtors are privileged and people who don’t have student debt are underprivileged…is just not factual.”
Along these lines, other groups have denounced the plan for not going far enough. Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, has criticizing Biden’s plan for adequately addressing the needs of the black community. Black bachelor’s degree graduates carry, on average, $7,400 more student loan debt than their white peers. For blacks who attended graduate school, they typically carry twice the student debt of their white peers. Wisdom Cole, the College and Youth Director for the NAACP, also noted that “$10,000 is not enough”, since “student loan debt is a racial and economic justice issue that stains the Soul of America.”
The astute observer will notice that moral objections are at the heart of each of the above reactions. We could perhaps summarize these moral arguments above in the following statements:
- Student loan forgiveness for disenfranchised populations is a moral necessity.
- This specific plan is immoral since it reinforces an unjust system that gives preference to relatively wealthy citizens.
- This plan is inherently unfair to those Americans without student loans.
In light of all of these competing moral claims, how should the Christian respond? More importantly, does the Bible’s ethical framework give us any instruction to guide our response? I strongly maintain the Bible’s moral code has direct application to our response as Christians. While there are many ethical teachings in the Bible that have some relevance, we will explore two major categories: (1) the Bible’s attitude towards work and compassion, and (2) Scripture’s cautious yet gracious approach to debt. We will deal with the first of these in this article, and reserve discussion of the second for PART 3.
The Value of Work
The ultimate goal of this series of articles is to accurately understand the biblical ethics surrounding the issue of debt relief. As we will see in PART 3, Scripture has a lot to say about the practice of forgiving financial debts. However, before we turn our attention to those Bible passages, it is important to explore what the Bible has to say about the nature and value of work.
In the ancient world, work was often seen as a curse. In early Greek culture, one of the words for work was ponos, which was also used for “hardship” or “toil.” For Aristotle, work was seen as something that corrupted a man’s soul and made it impossible for him to pursue virtue. The truly valuable members of society, it was believed, were the ones who didn’t have to work. While the Greeks didn’t invent the idea of “the elites,” they certainly leaned into this concept with great vigor. One scholar of Ancient Greece noted that philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle believed the lower classes labored in difficult jobs “in order that the minority, the elite, might engage in pure exercises of the mind, such as art, philosophy, and politics” (Tilgher, 1930, p. 5). Even mental labor, such as engineering, was held in low regard and considered unsuitable for the elite.
Work is a product of Creation, not the Fall. Thus, it is inherently good.
The Bible’s approach to work is vastly different. In Genesis 2:15 we are told that “the LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” The English phrase “to work it” is a translation of the Hebrew term ābodah, which refers to the act of doing, making, working, or laboring. We see this word throughout the Old Testament, often in highly positive contexts. For example, when Moses was renewing the Covenant with God, he tells the people of Israel, “Six days you shall work (ābodah),” Exodus 34:21. Later in the Old Testament, the positive virtue of work is assumed in passages like Psalm 104:23, “Then man goes out to his work (ābodah), to his labor until evening.” It could also be used in the sense of worship (i.e. in the sense of making praise, doing sacrifice, etc.). In Exodus 8:1, Moses tells Pharaoh, “This is what the LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship (ābodah) me.” Later, Joshua would attempt to inspire his people by saying, “But as for me and my household, we will serve (ābodah) the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
What is notable is that work is something God gives to humanity prior to our fall into sin (described in Genesis 3). In other words, work is a part of God’s good creation, not the Fall. It is something to be embraced, not something to be avoided. Certainly sin has made work much worse than it was originally intended to be. Human sin invented assembly lines, overworked employees, dangerous working conditions, and tedious labor. But biblically speaking, the problem isn’t that we must work or that we have bosses. The problem is tedious labor, unscrupulous employers, and unsafe working environments.
During the Reformation, Martin Luther attempted to directly challenge attitudes towards work in his day. The poverty-class and middle-class populations had accepted the idea that work was something inherently unfitting. It was something the higher classes were freed from, and thus having to work automatically meant something lower, baser, and less desirable. Luther challenged this idea, saying “we should accustom ourselves to think of our position and work as sacred and well-pleasing to God, not on account of the position or work, but on account of the word and faith from which the obedience and the work flow.” For Luther, work was inherently good and as such was something which the “working man” should holding high esteem.
Since work is a product of God’s creative design, it is meant to bring about human flourishing.
As seen in Genesis 2:15, work is part of God’s good created order. Beginning with Adam and Even, the original plan was for the Earth to be filled with humans who were working and caring for the planet. Out of Adam and Eve were to come families, clans, nations, societies, and culture. God’s plan was that these societies would flourish and provide for themselves through hard work within His good and glorious Creation. While the Fall corrupted work, work itself is still inherently good and a moral and practical necessity for human flourishing.
The apostle Paul understood this and knew that Christians must have a positive attitude towards work and see it as a fundamental good. Paul even tells us that “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23). Laziness or dishonest means of financial gain are incompatible with following Jesus. Paul wrote, “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands…” (Ephesians 4:28a). We will return to that verse in a moment (spoiler: the sentence continues). But for now, notice that Paul commands a positive attitude towards work. Hard work is the God-ordained means for the flourishing and provision of human beings. We see this teaching throughout the book of Proverbs. Consider the following verses:
- “Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies have no sense” (Proverbs 12:11).
- “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” (Proverbs 13:4).
- “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23).
- “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest; and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man” (Proverbs 6:10-11).
There is an inherent moral connection between working hard and being rewarded with the benefits of that work. This is why the apostle Paul also says, “the hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops” (2 Timothy 2:6). Take some time to look that verse up yourself and see how Paul is applying that concept to other types of work. He isn’t referring to a farmer as much as he is drawing our attention to the underlying principle. Either positively or negatively, “a man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7).
Scripture rebukes those who refuse to work.
Despite Scripture’s clear teaching, some of the Christians in the ancient city of Thessalonica had developed peculiar attitudes towards work. There is some debate about what exactly was going on, but one strong theory is that some of the Thessalonican believers had become so fixated on the return of Jesus that they quit their jobs and were idly waiting for the Second Coming. While that may have been well-intentioned, it caused the practical problem of how these believers would be fed and housed. They had to sleep somewhere and eat something while waiting and, since they refused to work, someone had to provide for these provisions.
For Paul, the core issue here wasn’t their presumed need, or even the fact that they got into the predicament by their own choices. Christians doesn’t hold one’s past mistakes against them (at least not obedient Christians). Paul’s issue was their current rejection of biblical teaching. Work was good and it was God’s divinely-ordained means for human flourishing. By rejecting that teaching, these believers were putting an unnecessary strain on the Christian community. Upon hearing about this development, the apostle intervenes. First, he called their attention to his own work ethic when he was among them. He writes, “we were not idle when we were with you…on the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you” (2 Thess 3:7b-8). He even adds, “we did this…in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate” (v. 9).
Second, Paul commands two things. One command is directed towards the church as a whole: “keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us” (v. 6). The other command is directed towards the idle: “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (v. 10), further commanding them to “earn the food they eat” (v. 12). To reject hard work is to reject God’s divinely-ordained means for human flourishing. Notice that Paul isn’t rebuking those who work at low-paying jobs, but rather those who refuse to work at all.
Scripture commands that we care for the poor.
We need to be careful here, lest we forget the larger picture. If the above verses were all that we looked at we might walk away with the conclusion that hardworking people have no obligation to help those who don’t work or those who work in jobs that don’t sufficiently meet their needs. Sadly, I’ve seen many on social media complain that counselors and school teachers freely choose those low paying professions and therefore we are under no obligation to assist them. This is the “reap what you sow” ethic. That certainly sounds biblical, at least in the sense that it is a direct quotation of Scripture. However, as we discussed in PART 1, allowing one verse to become our “interpretational control” usually distorts and twists Scripture’s meaning. That is certainly the case here.
To avoid this, we need to remember the biblical principle we just observed: hard work is intended to bring about human flourishing. That principle was never intended to be radically individualistic. This biblical teaching was never merely about working hard to secure one’s own flourishing, but rather human flourishing in general. To understand this, let’s take another look at Ephesians 4:28. We only quoted a portion of that verse above, but now let’s see the entire sentence: “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands that they may have something to share with those in need.” To use a proverbial expression, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” God commands that Christians embrace the value of hard work so that we may provide for our own immediate needs as well as the needs of those around us. The biblical principle of hard work (the so-called Judeo-Christian work ethic) was never intended to be a club wielded against those who were suffering financial burdens, but also serves as a means to help those struggling to flourish. Hard work is intended to lift all of humanity, not just those who work in higher paying professions.
Implications for our Study
First, we should be sympathetic towards hard working Christians who have reacted negatively to Biden’s debt forgiveness program. They certainly have a point. After all, they’ve faithfully worked at their jobs and are doing everything they can to support their families. Many have even worked to pay off their own student debt, sometimes even taking second jobs to do so. They have honorably embraced Scripture’s teachings about hard work and the recognize that, as a general life rule, we reap what we sow.
Second, we should rejoice that those Christians in favor of Biden’s program are attempting to live out the biblical ethic of compassion and genuine concern for the flourishing of others. You need not agree with their perspective, but you should respect their desire for our nation to grow in its attentiveness towards those who are struggling financially. When we become so beholden to a particular political position that we no longer respect other believers attempting to live out Jesus’ kingdom principles, we bring unnecessary division and disunity into the Christian community.
Third, deciding who is in “need” is notoriously difficult. It’s fairly easy to recognize that the orphan is clearly in need of financial assistance. But what about the local school teacher who makes $39,000 and carries $82,000 in student debt? We need to avoid maximizing definitions of ‘need’ (i.e. anyone making less than $125,000/year is poor) as well as minimizing definitions (i.e. you’re not in need unless you’re starving to death). To make matters worse, all definitions currently given are essentially comparative. But what should be the basis for comparison? Is “need” determined by comparing an individual to the top 20% of income earners in the United States? Or perhaps to the median income levels in the West? Or do we compare the individual against impoverished tribal groups living in underdeveloped nations? All of those comparisons are inherently subjective.
Several years ago, there was a problem with the benevolent committee of the church I pastored at the time (note: the benevolent committee is responsible for distributing money to those in financial crisis). It came to my attention that this committee was sitting on around $25,000 in funds, with more coming in through donations monthly, but yet they had only dispersed around $1,200 over the last three years! When I dug further into what was happening, I discovered they rejected almost every applicant. From that point on, I began attending the meetings. In the very first meeting, a slightly heavy-set elderly woman from the church came and asked for assistance in paying her heating bill. It was the middle of Winter. She was obviously embarrassed and deeply apologetic for even asking. She even volunteered to “pay the church back,” either in small payments over time or working off her debt by cleaning the church. After she left, the committee chairman made the recommendation that she be denied. When I asked what was his reason for this recommendation, he replied, “Well, I don’t want to be rude but she looks well fed to me.” In addition to having an ungodly judgmental attitude, this committee had embraced a disturbing (and I would argue, sinful) definition of “need” that excluded almost everything except the most existentially dire situations.
Still, the solution isn’t to swing to the opposite end of the spectrum. Personally, I believe the teacher I mentioned above easily falls within the biblical framework of someone who should be helped. Yet, I am not comfortable forgiving the loans of a freshly graduated law student who has just landed a job at $115,000/year. I’m sure a line exists, but finding that line is a difficult task.
Fourth, the biblical principles of hard work and compassion for those in need are crystal clear, but their wise application isn’t always so easily discerned. As noted above, we can’t even agree amongst ourselves what it means to be in “need.” Because of this, none of us should be surprised when believers attempt to draw that line in different places. It is utterly foolish, and inherently prideful, to become angered by another believer who defines “need” differently or who embraces/rejects Biden’s particular approach to this problem. In such situations, the angered-Christian is merely attempting to force his or her own preferred definitions and methodologies upon the consciences of other believers.
Fifth, human flourishing is the ultimate goal to which the biblical ethics of hard work and compassion point. Scripture mandates hard work so that we may provide for ourselves and for those around us. It also mandates compassion, essentially forcing us to recognize that the fruits of our labor are also meant to be shared with others. None of us should be satisfied until all of us are flourishing. A rising tide lifts all boats. This doesn’t mean that Biden’s program is wise or the correct way to accomplish this, but recognizing this biblical principle should lead us towards desiring the same underlying goal: i.e. the flourishing of those who are struggling financially. If we truly wish to steer our nation in a more biblical direction, finding points of agreement is equally as important as voicing concerns.
Josh Gelatt is a Ph.D. candidate at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the lead pastor of North Oak Community Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Hays, KS. He is currently working on his dissertation, tentatively titled “Justice and Conflict in Matthew’s Gospel: Intertextual Considerations Regarding a Messianic Theme.”