It was sad but not unexpected to hear of the death last week of Bob Holman, lifelong Christian Socialist, and a powerful inspiration to us all.
It is a privilege to write a few words about him. Bob was a former Professor in Social Administration at Bath University, who left academia 40 years ago, and decided to work and then volunteer on the Easterhouse estate, Glasgow, one of the poorest areas in Britain. He lived and assisted there in the local church and community until his death. His most influential book Towards Equality: a Christian Manifesto is based on Biblical teaching, draws inspiration from the earlier Christian socialists such as R. H. Tawney, and includes story after story of the folk of his Easterhouse neighbourhood. This gave his writing a real sense of authenticity, in the way that ‘Third World’ theologians also have, as they do theology from the context of poverty, exploitation. In Towards Equality Bob uses his expertise in social administration to outline definitions of poverty, and argues it is extensive and increasing. He issues a reminder of the Old Testament theme of the Jubilee, which was the stimulus for the millennium Jubilee Debt Campaign to cancel “Third World” debt. He applies this principle to contemporary individual debt which in many cases cannot be repaid, certainly on the Easterhouse estate.
Bob regards the teaching of Jesus as revolutionary, he built on the words of John the Baptist that those with two coats should give one away; he told the parable of the widow’s mite; he sent out his disciples without a purse or spare clothing; he commended compassion and sharing; he challenged the powerful and the rich; and he said we should love God and our neighbour as ourselves.
Bob then writes, “I am looking at a section of a Sunday newspaper headed ’Money Matters’. It reports that two of Bath’s finest houses are on the market at £300,000 each… (an) escape from London for the weekend. Not far from me a neighbour showed me her son’s bedroom. It contained two beds, no cupboards, no heating. A huge damp patch on wall and ceiling . . . She is desperate to move . . . but rebuffed by demands of £250 key money.”
The woman did not have the key money, and when another flat was found the rent was above what Housing Benefit office would pay. No chance of escape, says Holman, and definitely not to Bath.
In his writing and his talks Bob often referred back to the founders of the Christian Socialist movement—the Levellers, Hardie, and Lansbury, as well as Tawney, and the opposition and even abuse which they faced. But in Towards Equality he ends up at the Cross. Jesus was arrested by the Jewish and Roman authorities, and condemned to death on a cross, “because he challenged the status quo, because he was a threat to their positions . . .
"Serious challenges to the status quo always meet strong opposition from those who benefit from it.” He comments on the media which—being owned and managed by the wealthy—has no interest whatever in revealing the truth about our economy. The book concludes by urging Christians to take up their crosses—emotional, social, physical—saying, ”we will also experience the warmth, the friendship, the mutuality of joining others who struggle for the same end.” One way of honouring Bob at this time would be to search out and read that book, it is a reminder of when Christian Socialism was a more powerful political and moral force than perhaps it is today – but needs to be again.
Perhaps Bob’s best known venture was to try and forge a relationship with Iain Duncan Smith, and to influence his Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). However, although the CSJ paid lip service to Bob’s work, when Duncan Smith took over the Department of Work and Pensions there was a parting of the ways, demonstrated in Bob’s letters to the Guardian, excoriating the benefit-cutting policies of the DWP.
On a personal note, in recently completing my memoir, which should be published by the end of the year, when writing about my own time as Chair of the Christian Socialist Movement, I unashamedly quoted from Bob’s work as he lived out his faith in a way few of us are able to do. It was great to hear him speak again in London a couple of years ago on what I think was his last visit. He would have roared at being called a saint, but now can’t do a thing about it. I hope and pray he will not be forgotten by the movement.
David Haslam, former Chair of the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) 1999-2005