Debt Forgiveness: Who Owes Whom for What?

Illustration of a graduate in robes and cap with a ball and chain strapped to his ankle representing debt.

Millions will remain chained to their college debt for decades to come. What is called for is liberation, not “forgiveness.” Credit: Olivia Wise (

The lion’s share of indebtedness in this world is invalid and immoral. Forgiveness is not what is called for; it’s liberation.

Talk of a “debt jubilee” leaves open whether the debts are valid or not, but talking about debt forgiveness raises the question of whether a debt is valid from a moral point of view.

By definition, calls for forgiveness imply wrongdoing by the one being forgiven. For this reason, forgiveness is seen not as a moral obligation but rather as an act of generosity. The God who forgives sinners is a God of love and compassion, not a vengeful God. But what if nothing wrong has been done? A prisoner who has been wrongfully convicted is exonerated, not forgiven. And if a person has indeed violated a law but the law is unjust, then forgiveness is not the relevant concept. Thus, to ask whether an act should be forgiven inevitably raises the question of whether the act was morally wrong.

Most debtors in the world today—including those in debt bondage, in medical debt, in education debt, and more—have committed no wrongs, so what is called for is cancellation and liberation, not forgiveness.

Building consciousness against the validity of debt in the world today is essential to building a movement that can force the powers-that-be to rescind the debt or at least restructure it in more favorable terms. It is also important psychologically for the indebted. We are raised to believe we ought to obey the law, including paying our debts, and hence we feel guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed if we do not. Whole countries are in thrall and made to beg for relief. Rejection of the validity of our debts can at least relieve the psychological burden of those burdened by debt and can help to build a movement against them.

Immoral Debts

There are many situations in which debts clearly lack moral validity. One particular egregious case involves debt bondage. Only desperately poor people agree to loans forcing them to work for a lender for extended periods of time. Though recognized as a modern form of slavery, often passed through generations, and illegal in most countries, it is nevertheless pervasive throughout the world, even in the United States. Obviously, debtors in this situation need liberation, not debt forgiveness.

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