Thanks to President Biden’s controversial plan to forgive student loans, suddenly the spiritual principle of forgiveness is front and center … and exploding on social media. “Followers of Jesus should be the very last people to complain about a debt forgiven,” says one. And another: “When Jesus taught, ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,’ he was not merely using a metaphor, but challenging systems of exploitation impoverishing many in Jesus’ audience.”
There’s also this clever play on Matthew 18:21-35: “When the politician who owed $500,000 in loans had it forgiven through bankruptcy, he came upon a student who owed $10,000 in loans — which was being forgiven by the government. Whereupon the politician took to Instagram and Twitter to complain about the unfairness!” And then there’s this bit of satire: “Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fishes was a slap in the face to all the people who brought their own lunch.”
Many who decry Old Testament proof-texting on other issues are happily citing Deuteronomy 15 about the “seventh-year forgiveness of debts” demanded of God’s people. Which, applied today, would mean that all debts must periodically be forgiven, whether student loans, car loans, house loans, or even personal loans we may have given to others. Not just a percentage, but all of it!
If the forgiveness taught by Jesus is to be scrupulously honored, particularly beyond financial matters, are we consistent in extending our own forgiveness? Is Derek Chauvin beyond forgiveness for killing George Floyd? Or the arsonists and looters who destroyed businesses during the Black Lives Matter riots? Or the rampaging January 6th rioters? Did Jesus say we could pick and choose whom we forgive? “Father, forgive them,” He said, even of his crucifiers.
Have you considered how canceling has become a two-sided coin — as in “heads you win, tails you lose”? Whereas canceling student debt is invoked as a matter of Christian forgiveness, on the flip side no one takes notice of the unforgiveness shown in canceling people who happen to disagree with you — perhaps about canceling debt! Or canceling people who lived in earlier times with moral blind spots, not unlike our own. Did someone mention forgiveness?
When President Ford controversially pardoned Richard Nixon, it was an act of forgiveness in aid of healing a hurting nation. If forgiving student debt is a Christlike virtue, would Biden ever extend that same Christlikeness to pardon Trump, helping unite a divided nation? Do we exercise selective forgiveness, demanding godly forgiveness only when it suits our purposes? Do we expect God to forgive us when we forgive our friends but not our enemies?
Co-opting what Jesus taught about forgiveness in order to justify a legitimately questionable political and economic decision is rich, especially considering how much of Jesus’ other teaching is flatly rejected by many debt-cancellation advocates. If what we’re modeling after is Jesus’ concern for the poor, this middle-class giveaway — taking from those who never went to college in order to benefit the privileged who did — doubly widens the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.” By today’s woke dogma, isn’t inequity the unforgivable sin?
Lord of grace and mercy, forgive the foolish muddling that finds us too often forgiving what we shouldn’t, and, more often, not forgiving what we should.
F. LaGard Smith is a retired law school professor (principally at Pepperdine University), and is the author of some 35 books, touching on law, faith, and social issues. He is the compiler and narrator of The Daily Bible (the NIV and NLT arranged in chronological order).