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How the Student Loans Debate Got Religion

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.

Photo Credit: Goran Bogicevic via


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.