“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)
Why does the Torah teach that we should “love” the stranger? Is not tolerating other people in our society enough?
I think we are told to put real effort into loving the stranger, because too often our inclination is to be afraid of the stranger. Too often, when we see the other in our community, we feel nervous and unsure. The charge to “love the stranger” reminds us that we have an obligation to examine these feelings of discomfort we may hold, and find a way to love him or her. Love is the way through which we fight our deepest fears.
After the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, and after the too many other mass shootings we have experienced, we become curious about the shooter. What would compel a person to commit such a violent act? In our attempt to explain the unexplainable, we begin to piece together a profile of the murderers, and in many cases news outlets point out that the shooter was suffering mental illness.
Sometimes this is true. Many of the shooters we hear about in the news are suffering from mental illness. This can lead to a one dimensional view of these shooters, which has unfortunately led to a deep fear of people visibly living with mental illness more widely. Instead of Americans asking, how we can better support those suffering in our society, we assume incorrectly that those with mental illness are somehow more dangerous than the rest of society. Researchers have shown that this correlation does not really exist. Regardless, fear has driven the conversation and this fear leads to the stigmatization of people suffering from mental illness.
And when we consider that one in every four Americans lives with mental illness, and one in every 17 people lives with serious mental illness, it becomes clear that people suffering from mental illness are not strangers. They are our family, our friends, our coworkers, our teachers. When we perpetuate the notion that people who live with mental illness are violent we are attacking a major portion of our communities. It is time to end the stigma.
In April 2013, the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition (IDAC), of which the Religious Action Center is a member, recognized that the faith community had a unique role to play in providing resources to help communities speak out against gun violence without stigmatizing those who suffer from mental illness. From that effort came the Grounded in Faith resource guide. This guide presents information about the lack of correlation between gun violence and people with mental illness, and provides a host of resources created by faith groups around the country related to supporting those who struggle with mental illness.
The faith community came together to create these resources, because ending the stigma will be difficult. When violence hits our communities we will always be scared, and will always seek to understand who is responsible. It is in these moments, though that we should remember that from our fear comes an opportunity to embrace all of the members of our community a bit closer. Through this active process we will build tight knit communities that are not only safer, but that truly celebrate diversity. Many of us live with mental illness, and it will take all of us to end the stigma once and for all.