Ellul on Reparations

I admit, then, all the accusations leveled at the West for its colonialism and imperialism; I am the first to come forward for judgment. The French, the English, the Spaniards have committed countless atrocities throughout the world over the centuries: they are all a source of constant remorse for me, an unbearable burden. I do not attempt to disclaim all connection with what past generations have done. I refuse to take the easy way out and point the finger at those shocking ancestors of the fifteenth or the eighteenth century who slaughtered the Aztecs and invented slavery for the blacks. They were our ancestors! Their sins yesterday are ours today, because we live today by the profits they gathered yesterday. Our scientific and technological progress is inseparably connected with their conquest of the world.

Anyone who denounces and rejects those ancestors or present-day western imperialism should begin by refusing, for example, to use gasoline or to travel by car or bus or train. And there are countless other things he should stop using. That is why, in my opinion, we cannot clear our consciences cheaply by adopting an anti-imperialist ideology, signing manifestos, and drawing up passionate proclamations. That way, we only share the traditional hypocrisy of the West: we point the finger at the wicked and claim that our own conscience is thereby cleansed. No, the power we possess, our whole way of life, and all the material things that sustain us every day make us connivers, whether we like it or not, with the bloodshed, the looting, the torture, the contempt shown, the slaughters inflicted in the past. We are heirs to all that. We have inherited all the wealth, but we have likewise inherited all the hatred of the conquerors that has accumulated down the years.

We must bear the burden of all those crimes. We have no choice but to regard ourselves as debtors to the rest of the world. We owe back what our ancestors took. When the West gives “aid” to the third world, it is in reality only making restitution (and restoring only a tiny part of what was taken). We can never remove the bloodstains from our hands, because we can never restore life to the people slain and the cultures destroyed; we can never reunite the families torn apart by slavery. As for the tortures inflicted, what payment can we make for such suffering? Nothing the white race has done is alien to me, and I must bear the burden of it. I cannot cultivate a good conscience about it all; I cannot assert my own innocence by claiming that my ancestors were the guilty ones or that the Americans are the guilty ones today.

Ellul, Jacques. The Betrayal of the West. Translated by Matthew J O’Connell. New York: Seabury Press, 1978, pp. 7-8.