Let’s talk about how the ruling elite have created societal institutions that have subdued young Americans and broken any spirit of resistance to domination they might normally have. I’m talking about having some dialogue in the spirit of James who wrote to the ruling elites of his time:
“Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you” (James 5:3-5).
Somehow, the elites have convinced the latest generation that whatever corroded gold they have will be taken away if they don’t conform; their only hope is to hoard whatever little wages they are paid in hope of having a retirement of limited self-indulgence!
Bruce E. Levine writes, in a very telling article, that young Americans “appear to have acquiesced to the idea that the corporatocracy can completely screw them and that they are helpless to do anything about it. A 2010 Gallup poll asked Americans ‘Do you think the Social Security system will be able to pay you a benefit when you retire?’ Among 18- to 34-years-olds, 76 percent of them said no. Yet despite their lack of confidence in the availability of Social Security for them, few have demanded it be shored up by more fairly payroll-taxing the wealthy; most appear resigned to having more money deducted from their paychecks for Social Security, even though they don’t believe it will be around to benefit them” (Bruce E. Levine, republished in alternet.org).
How exactly has American society subdued young Americans – and young American Christians? This might take a few weeks to answer. But let’s talk again about one big reason we have been considering for years now: student-loan debt.
Large debt—and the fear it creates—is a pacifying force. When I went to UC Riverside in the 70’s my tuition went up to $215 a quarter and I was upset. At that time tuition at many U.S. public universities was so affordable that it was easy to get a B.A. and even a graduate degree without accruing any student-loan debt. Those days are gone in the United States, but public universities continue to be free in the Arab world and are either free or with very low fees in many other countries. The millions of young Iranians who risked getting shot to protest their disputed 2009 presidential election, the millions of young Egyptians who risked their lives depose Mubarak in Egypt, and the millions of young Americans who demonstrated against the Vietnam War back in the day all had one thing, at least, in common: the absence of pacifying huge student-loan debt.
Today in the United States, two-thirds of graduating seniors at four-year colleges have student-loan debt, including over 62 percent of public university graduates. And, like President Obama says, a high school degree is not enough:
Whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma….We have one of the highest high-school dropout rates of any industrialized nation, and half of the students who begin college never finish…This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.
One has to go to college to get a ticket into the economy. And that mandatory ticket will cost you. The median undergraduate debt is close to $25,000. Add on consumer debt and the typical twentysomething debt is close to $45,000 according to a study from last year. Increasingly, it is easy to find college graduates with $100,000 in student-loan debt. During the time in one’s life when it should be easiest to resist authority because one does not yet have family responsibilities, many young people worry about the cost of bucking authority, losing their job, and being unable to pay an ever-increasing debt. In a vicious cycle, student debt has a subduing effect on activism, and political passivity makes it more likely that students will accept such debt as a natural part of life.
The Bible has a lot to say about debt
But most Christians can’t listen to the Bible because their creditors might garnish their bank account if they did what the Bible says. Nevertheless, Romans 13 says:
Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law (Romans 13:7-8).
If you read this in an individualistic way, then whatever debt a person incurs is their lot. The debt industry would love to have us all feel that morality. It is ironic that the government and the corporations that own it (who are increasingly seen as individuals!), are not held to the same standard of individual responsibility. In fact they have special rights like limited liability and, the big one, they can live forever.
When Jesus tells Simon a parable about the woman washing his feet with her tears, he at least suggests an outlook other than someone being endlessly responsible for their debt.
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. (see Luke 7:40-49).
In the Lord’s story, the money lender forgives debts when someone can’t pay. That’s one thing. But the big thing, as in Romans, is that love is owed. Love is the goal. Forgiveness is the prize. In contrast, the faithlessness of our society is enslaving people. We’re taught that we will ruin someone if we disturb their supposed self-reliance. Being taken care of by society is considered wicked. But the corporations are very well cared for! Even if there was a vestige of Christian morality as part of the conversation, we would be better off.
And let’s not forget what Jesus teaches us to pray in the Lord’s prayer
Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Smack dab in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer, obscured by old translations and otherworldly assumptions, is a radical cry for Jubilee justice. In this most stripped down form of Jesus’ teaching — the bare essentials of what a disciple should bring before God in prayer — is freedom from economic debt for all of God’s children. The prayer is not just about sins like “My mother-in-law said something mean about me, so I should forgive her ‘debt of sin’ against me.” The prayer is about real debtors — people who are enslaved by the rich and their deceptive systems. It is bigger than that, but not less.
How do Christians “fight back?”
Among the Circle of Hope we say, “We are birthing a new generation of the church to resist and restore with those moved by the Holy Spirit.” That means at least four things in relation to the debt that is breaking the spirits of twentysomethings, especially:
1) We prophesy. Even if you think the truth will get you in trouble, you “go James” at the proper time.
2) We do not conform. Even if love is illegal, we practice it.
3) We create the alternative. In our community we are all about forgiveness and sharing.
4) We demonstrate the alternative. We get people out of debt. Our debt annihilation team is an extremely practical example of this. Our compassion fund distributions are usually gifts and always no-interest loans. Our cell members take care of each other. We have thrift stores full of low-cost items. We hold baby-goods exchanges. We support relief and development and advocacy through MCC. And we sure don’t follow every lie the domination system dishes out – instead, we live simply in the freedom of the Spirit. We find a new way through the wilderness of the present age.