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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.

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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.”

Christa Hillstrom wrote this article for YES! Magazine , a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Christa is web managing editor at YES!