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How the Student Loans Debate Got Religion

Thereu2019s a biblical precedent for forgiveness – of debt. Why churches are standing by students on one of the Bibleu2019s most surprising social principles.

There’s a biblical precedent for forgiveness – of debt. Why churches are standing by students on one of the Bible’s most surprising social principles.

Reverend Stan Duncan describes the members of his Wareham, Mass. congregation as blue-collar workers in a factory town where all the factories have moved away: They’re hard-working, mission-driven Christians who clean the homes of widows, play the accordion at nursing homes, and “vote almost universally in a more conservative way.”

“I don’t usually get that political in the pulpit,” he says of his leadership at First Congregational Church of Wareham (UCC). But last month he convinced his church to join more than 40 faith groups nationwide to pray for a political issue gone surprisingly—and refreshingly—religious: debilitating student debt, and what we can do to alleviate it.

Last week, Congress voted to extend lowered interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans to undergraduates after months of arguing over how to pay for it. The current 3.4 percent rates were set to expire on July 1 if an agreement was not reached, doubling them to 6.8 percent. This would mean paying an extra $1,000 over the life of subsidized Stafford loans for 7.4 million students.

“In the faith community, there is a real acknowledgment that students are our future,” said Eric LeCompte, executive director of the Christian organization Jubilee USA Network, which coordinated the national prayer session. “In a time of severe economic crisis … the types of loans they have dictate the kinds of choices they are able to make.”

The day of prayer on June 24 was the culmination of a series of actions—including press conferences, petition drives, and the delivery of around 3,000 messages from faith communities to the Senate—over the past 7–8 weeks to prevent the impending interest rate hike.

Jubilee USA, an alliance of more than 75 progressive and conservative religious, human rights, and community groups has traditionally focused its efforts on cancellation of debts in the Global South, especially those incurred by some of the world’s poorest countries trapped in economic bondage to banks, governments, and international institutions.

But the recent economic crisis in the United States has called attention home, to unjust debt structures and a system that mires students in decades of financial obligation with increasingly dubious employment prospects.

“For people just getting out in the job market, that’s a tough situation,” LeCompte said. “In terms of how we see it, with debt crises from Ireland to Zimbabwe to the U.S., there continues to be a precedent of irresponsible lending.”

Rev. Duncan connected the dots for his congregation with the help of Jubilee USA, tracing the Old Testament decree of periodic debt cancellation, to sovereign debt in the Global South and on to the student debt crisis at home. It was the biblical connection that helped the church recognize debt as a justice issue, he said, and therefore a religious one:

“The broader picture is that any kind of program or bill or issue that harms part of God’s creation—students in this case—is a religious issue, because part of God’s creation got broken.”

The word “jubilee” has long “rolled around the lectionary”—Duncan’s terms—and it’s a concept that many in his congregation are familiar with, even if its radical ramifications aren’t fully understood.

According to the Bible, in ancient Hebrew societies the completion of every seven-year Sabbatical cycle marked a minor jubilee. People returned to their ancestral homelands, property and land were redistributed, slaves were freed, and, yes, debts forgiven. And every 49 or 50 years (it’s up for debate), a major jubilee was celebrated: “This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families,” says the Old Testament Book of Leviticus.

Such mandates were intended to counterbalance the drift of economies that tended to concentrate land and resources in the hands of a few, while relegating others to peonage. In other words, even as power inevitably congealed over time, every seven years its structure was leveled—by design. By God’s design. It was one way to grow a just society that holds control of land and people in check.

Essentially, says LeCompte, we’re looking at a system of recurring emancipation that is deeply rooted in Hebrew scripture, laying the groundwork for an economic order where all are protected—especially the most vulnerable: “What’s really interesting about the jubilee concept is it’s actually what Jesus ended up basing his entire ministry on. He comes to free the slaves, unbind the bound, and declare the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Rev. Duncan and others recognize that last weekend’s Congressional intervention doesn’t ultimately address the broader structural and practical problems of student debt (collectively, Americans hold $1 trillion in outstanding loans), runaway tuition costs, and the unsustainable ways in which they’re paid. After all, it targets only one type of federal loan, available to only some students and for limited amounts (the average debt for all borrowers in 2011 was $23,300). Additionally, students will no longer enjoy a six-month post-graduation grace period in which to find a job before their loans enter repayment, while graduate students will begin accruing interest while they’re still in school.

Critics have argued that the recent spotlight on subsidized Stafford loans detracts attention from more serious issues and highlights a victory that is really not that significant: the doubled rate would have impacted just 3 percent of student debt.

What the faith-based momentum around last week’s vote does mean is that both progressive and conservative groups—even if only a few—have claimed what is often a divisive political issue as a unifying moral and spiritual cause, and connected the dots between debt and perpetual injustice.

Though few people in Rev. Duncan’s conservative congregation have college degrees, and only two or three of them are currently off at college racking up loans, some parents approached him after the service. They were moved by the collective prayer action, and said they understood what it looks like to descend into debt.

“The one who’s harmed the most in that whole tree is the student at the bottom who has to borrow more and more money just to stay in school,” Duncan reflects. “As a result, the whole society will limp just a little bit more.”

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