Stress and the Jesus Creed (RJS)

A frequent reader sent me a link recently to a series of YouTube videos from a PBS special describing a body of research exploring the link between stress and human health (HT JG). One of the featured studies is a 30 year field study of a troop of baboons in Kenya led by Professor Robert Sapolsky. You can find a short report of his study in this news release from 2007: Robert Sapolsky discusses physiological effects of stressWe’ve evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick.” Prof. Sapolsky has written a number of books including Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons. He is a very productive and well cited researcher. (The picture to the right is of a baboon troop in Tanzania, taken from wikipedia)

The PBS documentary looks at the link between stress, health, and hierarchy. The basic theme is straightforward – stress is bad for health, and hierarchy with its unavoidable stress is bad for health.  The first video sets up the study:

YouTube Preview Image

Chronic stress can be linked to a wide range of adverse effects – from arteriosclerosis to ulcers to faster aging and degradation of DNA. Baboons troops are very hierarchical with the alpha males pushing the others around. Stress is more pronounced in those ranked lower in the hierarchy than in the higher ranked males. Of course the relationship is not simply higher ranked – less stress. An article published just this summer in Science magazine Life at the Top: Rank and Stress in Wild Male Baboons suggests that stress is higher than thought among at least some of the alpha males. Professor Sapolsky contributed a perspective Sympathy for the CEO.

Do you think that stress plays a large role in health?

If so, what do you do about it?

The kicker though – the reason that the reader thought this interesting is not the connection between stress and health, but what came later in the study.

The role of stress in human health is both interesting and important. The next three segments of the PBS documentary can be seen at: Video 2, Video 3, Video 4. The fifth segment is the one that really interested the reader who sent me the link to the videos though. Starting about two and a half minutes into this video there is a description of a change in both the hierarchical structure and the stress levels in one of the baboon troops studied by Prof. Sapolsky and his co-workers.

YouTube Preview Image

The reader who forwarded the links noted:

I couldn’t help but see the traits exhibited by the group after the dramatic change being reflected in the teachings of Jesus.  That following his methods of “loving others as you love yourself” and becoming the “least of these” really paid off with tangible health benefits.  I’m thinking it would make a nice topic to discuss on the blog.

The analogy isn’t entirely perfect here – a baboon troop is not a human society. And sometimes following the way of Jesus and of the cross can get us into some rather stressful and messy situations. But the ideal is a community ruled by mutual submission, each to the other, and by servant leadership at its very best. This isn’t an occasional passing thought in the New Testament. It runs from the life and teaching of Jesus through formation of the early church, the teachings of Paul and Peter and John. Hierarchy is bad for us all.  The uncertainty and chronic stress of such situations is bad for our community and for our health.

It is something worth thinking about – from the structure of our churches and the role of leadership to the structure of our marriages and families.

What do you think?

Is there a place for hierarchy in Christian community?

Should the health effects be telling us something about the way we live?

How should this impact the way we view the call to love others as ourselves and the way we treat the “least of these”?

(The final segment can be seen here: Video 6)

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Rick

    “But the ideal is a community ruled by mutual submission, each to the other, and by servant leadership at its very best…Hierarchy is bad for us all.”

    That idea would really be distrubing to some in the Christian leadership industry.

  • rjs

    Rick,

    I think it should be disturbing to many in the Christian leadership industry. It should be disturbing to many who see a church (“a baboon troop?”) as an institutions for them to grow, expand and shape. We should find powerful Christian community in church – instead there is stress, uncertainty, and instability; and because church is not really necessary a tendency to keep a distance and avoid stress.

    I think it should be disturbing to many views of the Christian marriage and women in the church as well. Michael Kruse has used the term complementarity without hierarchy, and the “without hierarchy” gains new significance.

  • Rick

    RJS-

    I hope Kruse chimes in on this (haven’t seen him around here much lately).

    Of course there will be the response by some that the Trinity is a hierarchical structure/relationship.

  • rjs

    Rick,

    I don’t want the conversation to get mired here though – this is only one aspect of the whole. Another important point is the one brought up by the reader. How should this impact the call to love others as ourselves and the way we treat the “least of these”?

  • Diane

    Rick,

    I have understood the trinity to be a perichoresis or dance of equals, an idea first introduced to me by Scot McKnight. I love that image.

    I have been in both hierarchical and egalitarian church settings and have functioned much better in the latter. Those are where I have experienced my spiritual and human growth.

    RSJ,

    Thanks for bringing to light this fascinating study–I will look forward to looking at it.

  • Randy

    I am involved in a research project sponsored by my state and I interview nursing home residents.

    Yesterday I walked by a dayroom and witnessed something that impacted me in a very profound way. There sat a resident in a wheelchair (one of those that tilts back and functions as a bed). Her legs were very frail and under-developed, her hands were twisted and disfigured, and each eye stared off in a different direction. She probably didn’t weigh more than fifty pounds. This resident was older than I am and it seemed probable that she had been in her condition for her entire life.

    Sitting next to her was the activities director singing to her in a beautifully melodic voice. I recognized the song but I can’t remember the title. I stopped and listened for a few moments and was struck by the irony of it all. The worst that life can dish out, and yet a most beautiful gesture of kindness and compassion.

    A wonderful lesson for me. Maybe we should spend more time in nursing homes.

  • Rick

    Diane-
    “I have understood the trinity to be a perichoresis or dance of equals, an idea first introduced to me by Scot McKnight.”

    I too appreciate that that image from Scot.

    “I have been in both hierarchical and egalitarian church settings and have functioned much better in the latter. Those are where I have experienced my spiritual and human growth.”

    That is interesting. Would you be able to expound on that? I would like to hear how that helped, especially in regards to hierarchy and stress.

  • Jason Lee

    And check out this TED talk “How economic inequality harms societies”: http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html

    And:
    The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity [Paperback] Michael Marmot (Author)

    The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier by Richard G. Wilkinson

  • MD

    How can the church be a 501(c)3 [or be any kind of formal organization] without hierarchy?

  • Jason Lee

    I really think there’s something to hierarchy when it produces stress and low self-esteem in people. But need all forms of hierarchy do that?

    Are there some neutral or positive forms of hierarchy? What about some forms of leadership that are empowering to others and lead a group toward flourishing? There’s still hierarchy there, no? What about parenting? Aren’t parent’s who provide structure, leadership, and appropriate discipline to their children engaging in a kind of hierarchy? What about being a teacher? Societies such as Finland and S. Korea, where teachers are kept in high esteem by students and society as a whole, are some of the world’s top scholastic performers (unlike the US where teachers are devalued by society). Isn’t this a kind of hierarchy?

  • rjs

    Jason,

    All hierarchy isn’t bad – but there are key issues that make it bad. This is where servant leadership at its best comes into play. Is the effect of leadership to feed the ambition and ego of the leader (effect need not be intent)? Is leadership exercised with the best interest of others in mind? Does leadership build up community and make others feel valued and involved? … We could probably come up with other measures.

  • rjs

    Jason,

    The comment on teachers is interesting. I know someone who is a high school English teacher in a poor school district (most students come from poverty and stressed situations). He recently moved from one school to another with a difference in his mind of night and day.

    In the old school teachers were workers who should do what they were told and not question the often arbitrary leadership of the school (keep your head down and survive).

    In the new school teachers are treated as part of the team working to achieve the goals. They have both real input and real respect.

    Both institutions have hierarchy – but the difference is significant.

  • http://inchristus.wordpress.com Paul D. Adams

    “But the ideal is a community ruled by mutual submission, each to the other, and by servant leadership at its very best. This isn’t an occasional passing thought in the New Testament. It runs from the life and teaching of Jesus through formation of the early church, the teachings of Paul and Peter and John. Hierarchy is bad for us all.”

    Now…if only the evangelical, male-only church would get this….
    (Sad Sigh)

  • Jason Lee

    rjs:

    Your comments to me sound like the sweeping statement “Hierarchy is bad for us all.” needs considerable nuance. Seems like we’re talking about something more specific than hierarchy, no? It seems that certain forms of hierarchy are what have negative effects for many people. How can we categorize those particular forms?

  • rjs

    Jason,

    Watch the videos. This isn’t a call for egalitarian utopia.

    Hierarchy where others are at the whim and pleasure of the alpha individuals is bad – universally bad.

    Hierarchy in the sense that different individuals fulfill different roles with different responsibilities … this is a different situation. But servant leadership is something we do not seem to want to do well.

  • Fred

    Jason

    I think her point was (and I will stand corrected) that hierarchy is not the issue, ego is. As humans we have a remarkable way to corrupt just about any form of hierarchy.

  • http://www.darenredekopp.com/ Daren Redekopp

    You can’t take the example of baboons pushing each other around to be the necessary dynamic of all hierarchies. Jesus did not in any way do away with hierarchy. What this does tell us is that there are two different ways of living hierarchically: according to the drive for domination, or according to the drive for joy.

  • Phil N

    @ Rick and Diane,

    I’ve been puzzled by the the trinity hierarchy arguments which I have only begun hearing recently and read some interesting stuff, a good summation is from Ben Witherington of Asbury:

    http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2006/03/eternal-subordination-of-christ-and-of.html

  • rjs

    Darren,

    Watch the videos (which deal with more than baboons) and look at the kind of data being evaluated for the baboons. This isn’t a study of culture as much as it is a look at the very real physical effects of stress.

    Stress damages the body.

    Many kinds of hierarchy breed stress – but this isn’t the only kind of chronic stress that is investigated.

    One hypothesis worth discussing is that living in a community governed by the Jesus Creed and mutual submission (including real servant leadership) is good for us – good for our health.

  • JohnM

    I suspect many people who champion egalitarianism also tend to decry individualism and I find that ironic.

    Unity requires hierarchy. It’s really no use talking about egalitarianism anyway, hierarchies are going to be. They’re supposed to. Hierarchies are not bad.

    The question is, before we even get to what shape the hierarchy should take is: What is the legitimate basis for the hierarchy? In baboon world I suppose it is based on physical size and who can beat up who. Of course human societies are sometimes not much different.

    Make no mistake, in ostensibly egalitarian groups hierarchy develops and in the absence of formal structure or understood relationships it will likely be based on who can out talk, browbeat, or manipulate who.

  • Jon G

    RJS, thanks for the post. I found the videos remarkable to watch.

    One thing that hasn’t been said, which might make some of the baboon comments go away, is that the study was closely correlated with a study in Britain concerning government employees. Because the government program was set up similarly to the baboon heirarchy, it made for an interesting parallel. The results were the same…those lower on the ladder experienced the same unhealthy side effects as in the baboon colony and vice versa.

    The point isn’t that nobody should be in charge, but rather, when leadership and laypeople are treated with dignity and respect, when power is earned rather than asserted, and when concern is displayed for all…productivity and health, and probably happiness, flourish.

    It just seems that the Jesus way of life, whether in people or in baboons, and despite being counterintuitive in today’s modern world, really does lead to life, and that to the full.

  • Susan N.

    Just finished reading/watching all the links. Thought-provoking. Will be processing these thoughts for a while…

    I will just say one thing: The big question for me is, what can we do about this information to positively influence the unhealthy socially-hierarchical (eat, or be eaten) situation we (have created) find ourselves in?

    Most definitely, empowering those in a lower, less powerful status to change their circumstances and increase their self-esteem (sufficiently love themselves) would be in the best interests of ALL in society.

    But, and this was brought out somewhat in the video series — a complete overhaul of our values (especially Westernized) will also be required, if the positive changes are to stick, and be global (for all, not just those at the top of the social hierarchy) in scope.

    Hard-driving, ambitious, Type A, ruthless people may not be so well-liked, but there is a certain level of respect, if not grudging admiration, for their ability to climb and succeed in the world. I think about the mother of the child with a disability who grieved the suggestion from a well-meaning ‘friend’ that she put her daughter in an institution. The mother said, “She may not be able to communicate, but she loves…she LOVES.” Undoubtedly, that mother has devoted her entire being to nurturing her daughter. And more often than not, few will know or appreciate (value) the existence of that mother, or her disabled daughter, in our society. Our high-stress system is dehumanizing, treating people like products or commodities.

    Church… We certainly should hold religious community to a higher ideal than the aggressive, dominating social hierarchy of the world system. But, sadly, I feel that we are naive to think that church will be a utopia of perfect people. I’ve grown up, finally, to realize that the church is full of sinners, in the process of transformation, who sometimes get it right, and often fail miserably at being different, something more, than the world offers. It is hard work to build a healthy society / community; it takes a miracle — Someone beyond ourselves doing a healing, redeeming work with our puny efforts. Lord, save us!

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Susan N.#22, I have not watched the material but hearing your comment on the child reminds me of the song Wonder. That song is on my top list of songs specifically for the dramatic contrast of our assumed values and the values of the person in the song. Love it.

    Doctors have come from distant cities
    Just to see me
    Stand over my bed
    Disbelieving what they’re seeing

    They say I must be one of the wonders
    Of god’s own creation
    And as far as they can see they can offer
    No explanation

    Newspapers ask intimate questions
    Want confessions
    They reach into my head
    To steal the glory of my story

    They say I must be one of the wonders
    Of god’s own creation
    And as far as they can see they can offer
    No explanation

    O, I believe
    Fate smiled and destiny
    Laughed as she came to my cradle
    Know this child will be able
    Laughed as my body she lifted
    Know this child will be gifted
    With love, with patience and with faith
    She’ll make her way

    People see me
    I’m a challenge to your balance
    I’m over your heads
    How I confound you and astound you
    To know I must be one of the wonders
    Of god’s own creation
    And as far as you can see you can offer me
    No explanation

    O, I believe
    Fate smiled and destiny
    Laughed as she came to my cradle
    Know this child will be able
    Laughed as she came to my mother
    Know this child will not suffer
    Laughed as my body she lifted
    Know this child will be gifted
    With love, with patience and with faith
    She’ll make her way

  • josh

    Interesting videos!

    I would be curious if you “Scott” and the gathered community see any relationship with this study and this weekends lectionary passage for the gospel. The parable of the talents from Matt. 25
    Peace,
    Josh

  • AHH

    Incidentally, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, who appears in Parts 4 and 5, shared the Nobel Prize in 2009 for Physiology or Medicine (not specifically for the stress work).

    One additional Jesus-related thing that struck me in that little segment was that sharing experience in supportive community could help heal the effects of stress. Would that we could more often be that sort of community for one another in the church.

    I also wonder if some of the things advocated in this documentary (less Type A, less aggression, less assertion of power and climbing over others) would be labeled by some as “feminization of the church”.

  • rjs

    AHH,

    I hadn’t picked up on the piece with Blackburn. The Nobel was for work on telomeres and telomerase, but not specifically on stress.

    The healing effect of restructured community is a great point.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Being this is a video thread I thought I could post the vid to the Wonder song. It is wonder-ful.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zpYFAzhAZY

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    ..btw, I think we could win people like Natalie Merchant back to Christianity if we had a bigger gospel such that Scot is advocating. The eastern religions have considerable appeal for someone who would write a song like she did. I can’t imagine her as a Calvinist.

  • rjs

    Susan N (#22)

    Good thoughts. Scot posted a reply to a comment on his Facebook link to this post that I think really cuts to the chase here.

    This is why the Jesus Creed was central to Jesus. Respect for others renders a person into a genuine experience of presence.

    There is a reordering of existence around the call to love God and to love others. I think the message may go a bit deeper here – it is not possible to love God without loving others.

    Churches are comprised of sinful people and always will be… we shouldn’t be looking for perfection, but for a right orientation, and this is so often wrong.

  • Brad

    This was a National Geographic documentary called “Stress – Portrait of a Killer” and I watched it on Netflix streaming a while ago. It may still be on there. I found it to be a very interesting documentary.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X