There has been much discussion in the news and in Congress in the last months over student loans. The average undergraduate finishes college with more than $25,000 in student debt. Back in May, as the politics of student loan interest rates heated up, the NY Times ran an in-depth expose “Student Loans Weighing Down a Generation.” In the debates concerning interest rates, rising college costs, for-profit colleges and student debt, the Jewish and Christian perspective on debt and debt forgiveness is coming into the conversation.
Over at Yesmagazine.org is an article “How the Student Loans Debate Got Religion,” Christa Hillstrom write:
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.”
Most recently, the Jubilee tradition was invoked by Pope John Paul II, Bono, and a host of world leaders in the 2000 Debt Forgiveness campaign. No one is equating the student loan crisis to the crisis of “third-world debt” but the biblical tradition is a tool for creatively thinking about both. As the student loan debt crisis explodes, Jubilee USA’s reflection on and invocation of the biblical jubilee tradition is one we should all stop and reflect on.