Melissa Florer-Bixler: What does it mean to forgive our debtors?

Image of arm drowning in money

iStock / sorbetto

Debt is a crushing issue for many in our congregations, but creative churches are offering a path to freedom, a pastor writes.

The younger adults in my congregation have debt, and they have a lot of it. The generational wealth gap, exacerbated by race and gender, forms a fissure between baby boomers and their millennial children in my congregation.

But it wasn’t until one of my church members, Sarah Jessica, talked about debt as a moral question, and a religious one, that I began to consider what indebtedness means for my ministry in the church.

Sarah Jessica is open about the magnitude of her law school debt. Like most people her age at my church, she patterned her life after the expectations of family and friends.

College was the way to a better future. Graduate school was a requirement for any job that would propel her toward a life of homeownership, children and retirement savings. Whatever debt was incurred would be paid off by the well-paying career on the other end.

It worked out for her family members, so she assumed it would work out for her, too.

Instead, Sarah Jessica is buried in debt, part of a generation that owes $1 trillion, the vast majority in the form of student loans.

When Sarah Jessica has brought this up in church, she said, the response is most often silence or shame. Shame takes the form of classes on personal responsibility and financial management, as if debt were exclusively the product of poor choices and extravagant purchasing.

What churches often miss is that debt is structured within an economy of usury, where high rates are often unrealistic and burdensome.

Since 1964, the cost of college in current dollars has increased 2,700% -- yet half of millennials receive no assistance from family members, and most professional careers require at least a bachelor’s degree.

Millennials also live under wage stagnation, and no amount of frugality or budgeting can overcome this burden of depressed salaries. In addition, older millennials have been hit midcareer with two of the worst financial crises in our nation’s history.

Health care costs have also exploded over recent decades. In 1960, the annual spending on health care per person was $147. In 2019, the average yearly cost per person was $11,172.

Millennials of color, burdened by racialized economics, are in even greater debt. New Black college graduates owe an average $23,400 -- $7,400 more than their white counterparts. Four years later, with differences in interest accrual and borrowing for graduate school factored in, Black graduates owe close to $53,000 -- nearly twice as much as white graduates. Generational disparities in wealth creation and the racial wage gap balloon that debt over time.

It is no surprise that millennials are putting off homeownership and are often living with parents to make ends meet. Fewer people under 40 are having children, and even fewer are saving for retirement.

But the consequences of debt for people in our churches extend beyond these vestiges of the American dream. Debt cuts off people’s futures and ties them to lives revolving around decades of repayment plans. It affects relationships and marriages. It is an omnipresent burden, burrowing into every area of life.

Debt has become such a normal part of our lives that we’ve forgotten the church’s history of debt condemnation and accommodation.

The church fathers were clear in their pronouncement that charging interest of any amount was a form of sin -- contrary to the notion of Christian charity and oppressive to the poor.

The Council of Nicaea issued a canon against usury, prohibiting clergy from lending with interest. Other councils would affirm excommunication for any person who excised additional money from another by charging interest.

Later catechisms would become more permissive, specifying “exorbitant” or excessive interest charges as the sin, which they associated with stealing, in violation of the eighth commandment.

The church’s response to debt over time became increasingly devoted to finding ways to engage in usury through loopholes and intermediaries, and by scapegoating the Jewish people. It is no wonder that today, as our church members face a debt crisis, we have little imagination for how we should respond from our faith, and for what possibilities lie before us.

Congregational life and organized finances provide the opportunity to stop shifting blame and instead address the struggle of people in our churches by paying off one another’s debts.

The church should be a place where, far from hiding our debts from one another, everyone can find jubilee.

In my congregation, in addition to traditional benevolence funds, church funds can be used to pay off a person’s high-interest loan, to be repaid to the church at 0% interest.

Once returned, that money can be used to pay off another high-interest loan held by someone else in the congregation. From time to time, we simply pay off a small loan without repayment of any kind.

At Circle of Hope, a church in Philadelphia, a Debt Annihilation Team forms groups that come together to tackle debt collectively, with all the people in a group paying toward the highest-interest debt before moving on to the second-highest and so on.

Within a couple of years, these groups have worked together to pay off over a hundred thousand dollars in debt.

One of my favorite stories of a creative debt ministry comes from Silverwood Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana. Pastor Jeremy Shue got into the pulpit one Sunday to preach on Psalm 15. He was struck by the psalm’s assertion that those who walk blamelessly “do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent” (Psalm 15:5 NRSV).

Like many pastors, Shue could see the division of generational debt in his church. Some people were comfortable in their finances, while others were struggling to make ends meet. What if the church matched them up? What if the people who didn’t have debt helped pay off the loans of those who did?

So Shue ended the sermon with a request. He had the ushers hand out slips of paper and asked the congregants to write down “Debt” or “Jubilee,” along with the amount of money they owed in burdensome debt or the amount they could afford to give away.

When Shue looked through the slips of paper at the end of the service, he was stunned. The members had pledged $50,000 toward congregational debt relief.

In most churches, we’ve come to accept that debt is normative, a burden borne by some in secret as the cost of living. But some churches are beginning to question this narrative, insisting that we have the tools and conviction to help one another be free from the burden of debt.

The debt crisis is not going away. We need broad, national regulatory efforts and federal loan forgiveness. But churches can also be part of breaking the stranglehold of usury.