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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Very Long Christmas Dinner
distributed 12/10/04 - ©2004

I was confused at the start of The Long Christmas Dinner, a one-act play by Thornton Wilder. It took me a while to catch on to the storytelling trick at the heart of the play.

The Bayard family has gathered around a large table for Christmas dinner. Their conversation gradually reveals details about the family life. It seems ordinary enough.

But then, a few minutes into the play, new characters walk onto the stage, settle down at the table, and join the conversation -- without comment from the rest of the family. People who had been at the dinner from the start leave and never return. Their absence isn't noted at the moment of departure, but crops up later in the conversation.

It finally dawned on me -- this is not a single meal. Wilder is tracking the family through a seamless melding of annual gatherings. All told (I have since found out), the short play dramatizes the lives of four generations of family members through a ninety-year span. The compressing of so many years into a few on-stage minutes provides a wonderful look into the Bayard family.

The sense of the play that has stuck with me the most, though, is the persistence of family that goes beyond its individual members. People come and go, but the family continues. The dialogue flows unbroken while the composition of the family gradually changes. The table, the meal and the family go on. It is a reassuring message of continuity and stability.

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Wilder's play spans 90 years. Let's shift the time scale to encompass a much longer stretch. Let's picture a very long Christmas dinner of something like 900,000 years.

The gathered family that I see around the table does not start with a half-dozen early humans dressed in skins. This family is far more diverse, representing a wide variety of species. As in Wilder's play, the family dynamics -- here glimpsed at thousand year intervals -- gradually change. Species come and go, emerging from a marginal place in the web of life, growing into prominence, and then dropping to extinction.

Watch the story unfold across hundreds of thousands of years, and the effect is much like Wilder's human narrative. Changes happen. Individuals (species, in this long play) come and go, but the family carries on. Continuity and stability are strong themes of the play.

But the end of this story looks different than Wilder's play. This has become a tragedy.

After eons of gradual change, with a slow transition of species in and out of the play, humans suddenly emerge as leading characters. Maybe we've been on the fringes of the stage for a long time, but 10,000 years ago -- just a moment in this play -- humans discover agriculture and burst onto the scene.

Like an obnoxious, self-centered dinner guest, this new figure at the table dominates everything. Talking loudly and non-stop, the human overwhelms the long-running conversation. The human's flailing elbows gouge those sitting to either side. The human claims all the food on the table, gobbling voraciously while others are left hungry.

Suddenly, dozens, hundreds, thousands of family members leave the table -- exiting into death. The long theme of continuity in the midst of change collapses. Extinction changes from an occasional, expected part of the ongoing story into something cataclysmic. In a matter of moments, the table empties. The huge family gathering diminishes to the still obnoxious human, and a few durable kin -- cockroaches, rats and coyotes.

The Very Long Christmas Dinner is a literary device, but the story isn't fiction.

  • A recent report in the journal Science says that almost 150 species of amphibians have apparently gone extinct in recent years, and at least one-third of the rest are facing imminent threats that could soon wipe them out.

  • An Audubon Society study says that one in three bird species in North America are in "serious decline" because of habitat loss and damage, invasive species, pollution and poor land management -- factors that are directly or indirectly human caused.
Humans are triggering a vast extinction event, dramatically reducing the biological diversity of the Earth. We are killing off our relatives at the dinner table.

Humanity's astonishing creativity, versatility and power has placed us in a position of such global dominance that our species is crowding, starving, and poisoning thousands of other species into oblivion. That wave of extinction is slamming into the Earth's systems in a matter of only a few decades. A short-term perspective doesn't let us see the scope of this catastrophe. A million years of our family history, though, makes the tragedy clear.

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As the new US Congress convenes in January, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of the major pieces of legislation that is likely to come up for review.

There is legitimate debate about the strategies that the ESA might use to stem this tide of extinction. What is the best blend of incentives and restrictions? Should the focus be on individual species, or on habitats? It is appropriate for citizens, scientists and policy-makers to explore many options for preserving the diversity of life. What is not appropriate is any approach to the ESA that sees this wave of extinction as normal, natural or acceptable.

Let your legislators know that, as a matter of faith, you value all of God's creatures -- all the members of our family of life -- and that you want a strong Endangered Species Act.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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