Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Commentariat Speaks (25)

The White House recently announced a debt relief program for lower income students who are having difficulty repaying government loans taken to obtain their college degrees. Qualifying debtors may be forgiven up to $20,000 in unpaid student loans, and undergraduates may have their monthly loan repayments cut in half. Higher income college graduates will not qualify for debt relief.

I was surprised to find many Christians opposed to this move.

For example, over at Blog & Mablog, Ryan writes:

“Given Joe Biden’s recent executive order to forgive up to $20,000 of student loans for Pell Grant recipients and $10,000 for those who make less than $125,000 as individuals or $250,000 as married couples, is it sinful for the Christian to partake of this forgiveness? There are certainly legitimate concerns about the constitutionality of this executive order, but on a more fundamental level, this order seems to violate basic biblical principles of justice and impartiality. I have seen arguments on both sides, but tend to see this bill as unjust and unbiblical. So my questions are

1) Am I correct in my assessment of the bill? and

2) If the bill is unbiblical, does the Christian have a moral obligation to not partake of the debt forgiveness if they have student loans?”

Doug responds:

“Ryan, I think your assessment is correct, and while I don’t want to pronounce on individual circumstances when I don’t know all the variables, I can certainly say that I am encouraging Christians to refuse the debt forgiveness.”

I find this baffling, frankly. One would think Christians would be in favor of more forgiveness, not less. Let’s be generous and assume this is not just reflexive, conservative disagreement with anything proposed by a Democrat, and consider the points raised in the email and its response.

1/ Is the Executive Order Unconstitutional?

In order to consider the question, we’d first have to know on what basis people like Ryan and Doug object to it, and neither seems inclined to say. But until someone in a position to file suit tests the Order’s constitutionality in court and a judge rules the program to be in violation, it seems the debt relief will go forward. For all practical purposes, unless and until it is struck down, this is the law of land. That doesn’t prevent Christians from opining about its constitutionality or declining to participate, of course, but I don’t think we should be unhappy to see burdened debtors let off the hook while we wait to find out if the Executive Order will stand up in court.

I have some sympathy for the objection that the taxpayers should not have to bear the burden of forgiving student debt. I would rather see the private creditors take the hit, since they have disproportionately benefited from the interest on student debt over the years. But since the Executive Order targets the poorest debtors, there’s an argument to be made that the taxpayers may not have got their money back in any case. Moreover, whatever funds this frees up in the pockets of former students will inevitably end up back in the economy, where others benefit.

2/ Does the Order Violate Basic Principles of Justice?

Presumably the objection is that a contract made should result in a contract fulfilled. Generally speaking, this is true. At the same time, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” “Debt is debt and all debts must be repaid” was the logic of the unforgiving servant in the Lord’s parable. It was technically correct, but his thinking revealed a blind spot about his own responsibilities, an inability to anticipate the consequences of his choices, and an ungrateful heart. Thank the Lord we don’t have to live under the “eye for an eye” rule today. It was certainly just, but we would all wind up losers in the end by adopting that standard.

Peter reminded the early church that law was a yoke “neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear”. This remains true today. And if the early church declined to burden believing Gentiles with a righteous law, why would we insist on 100% compliance with contract law to young men and women, many of whom naively incurred massive amounts of debt because their parents and society counseled them to do so, under a usurious system that is itself profoundly unbiblical?

Furthermore, if Christians support debt relief for unbelievers who are sinking financially (as anyone who has ever read about the Jubilee should), why would they refuse to avail themselves of the same opportunity when the government itself makes no such distinction?

3/ Does the Order Violate Principles of Impartiality?

Presumably the objection is to some parties currently in school getting a free ride while others will have to pay the full tab. And, of course, many millions of former students have graduated, joined the workforce and already repaid their debts in full. Frankly, I would rather see all school debt forgiven for everyone, and the practice permanently banned. But an imperfect move toward forgiveness is better than no move at all.

Also, the same thing happens every time an unjust law is corrected: there are winners and losers. Somebody is in the right place at the right time; others are not. That is no argument for maintaining unjust laws. Would Americans in 1865 have been right to argue for the continuation of slavery on the basis that the current generation of slaves were about to get a way better deal than their parents and grandparents had?

As to the issue of partiality, the answer to that, I think, is the same as the answer of the master of the vineyard to the laborers hired first: “Do you begrudge my generosity? Did you not agree with me for a denarius?” Christians who have assumed debt and are now in a position to pay it off in full should not object to doing so. They got what they contracted for, and they can be satisfied to have met an obligation they incurred lawfully, if not morally. But to insist on imposing the same standard on others who are not so well off seems unreasonable.

In the year of Jubilee, the debtor had his debt forgiven and his pledge returned to him. But the rich man also took a hit: he no longer had use of the poor man’s field. In a sense, the Jubilee benefited the poor man at the rich man’s expense. Yet this system was God’s, not man’s, and we know God always judges impartially, even if his dealings are sometimes mysterious to us.

4/ Is It Sinful to Partake?

I will admit it’s a tad ironic to find the Democrats, of all people, following scriptural principles, however inadvertently. That shouldn’t predispose us to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are certainly circumstances in which it is sinful to benefit from an unjust law. But before well-off middle class Christians start telling a generation of impoverished students not to take advantage of a legal break offered to them, they should probably sell off their stocks and put the proceeds in the offering box first.

If anything constitutes a sinful benefit, it is the usurious financial market system with which we have all grown far too comfortable.

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