By Maria Mayo
On March 8, U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke proposed the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012 (H.R. 4170). In making a case for the bill, he observed that the unemployment rate for college graduates was 9.1 percent in 2011, and that Americans' outstanding student loan debt obligations now exceed $1 trillion.
The bill aims "to increase purchasing power, strengthen economic recovery, and restore fairness in financing higher education in the United States through student loan forgiveness, caps on interest rates on federal student loans, and refinancing opportunities for private borrowers, and for other purposes." Clarke argues that higher education should be seen as a public good, but the resulting student loan debt borne by many graduates negatively affects the nation's economy.
The moral force behind Clarke's bill relates to the health of the economy and the ability for college graduates to flourish. But how does student loan forgiveness relate to the kind of forgiveness advocated by Jesus in the Gospels?
Jesus talks about debt forgiveness in both prayer and parable. In Matthew, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray to God to "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (6:12). Later he describes the dire consequences of refusing to forgive debts in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, where a servant who was forgiven an enormous debt by a king is thrown in jail when he refuses to forgive a smaller debt owed to him (18:23-35). Jesus finishes with the frightening message that God will deal similarly with human beings who refuse to forgive one another "from your heart."
However, it is clear in both cases that debt forgiveness functions as a metaphor for sin forgiveness and is not to be taken literally. In case listeners don't make the connection between debts and sins, Matthew makes the metaphor clear with this postscript to the Lord's Prayer: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (6:14-15).
In the Old Testament, the dominant metaphor for sin was weight. Forgiveness would lift or carry away that burden, as in Genesis 50:17: "Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive (lit. Hebrew, "carry away") the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you." However, due to the influence and spread of Aramaic language during the Second Temple period, this idiom shifted and sin became understood as a debt that must be repaid or canceled. Jesus' listeners would have immediately understood his stories about debts to be, in reality, stories about sin.
Jesus' stories and prayers make broad use of this metaphor. The Parable of the Two Debtors -- in which Jesus explains that one who has a large debt forgiven loves more than one forgiven a smaller debt (Luke 7:40-43) -- and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant do not command financial debt forgiveness, but rather demonstrate by analogy the power and relief that accompanies the forgiveness of sins. It is sin forgiveness, not debt forgiveness, that is connected to forgiveness by God.
As the holder of a six-figure student-loan debt, I more than anyone would like to see debt forgiveness carry a moral force all its own. I appreciate the care for students and college graduates demonstrated in the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, as well as its emphasis on the health of the national economy. But there is nothing in the teachings of Jesus that suggests that literal, financial debt forgiveness is a moral or religious imperative.
Perhaps if Jesus were still teaching with parables, he could add this one to his repertoire:
"The kingdom of God is like a student who wanted to study religion. She completed a Ph.D. with a student loan debt of 10,000 talents. For years she struggled to find a job and make loan payments. She appealed to the Emperor for mercy, and he forgave all her debts. She felt like a weight was lifted! She resolved to work hard and be generous to others. And this is how God will deal with your sins if you are grateful and nice to other people."
The point is not that forgiving a monetary debt is moral act worthy of praise, but that forgiving transgressions can be like forgiving debts: an expression of generosity and care, a source of relief, and an inspiration to do good. Thus, Jesus would not call for all student loan debts to be forgiven; instead, he might use the illustration of student loan debt forgiveness as a positive analogy for divine or human forgiveness.
According to Rep. Clarke's bill, this is exactly the moral impetus of the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012. The point is not that it is a good thing to forgive debts. Instead, the goodness comes from the positive effects on society: promoting higher education as a public good, providing relief for graduates suffering under enormous debts and contributing to a stronger economy. Debt forgiveness is a moral issue for these reasons.