Can blowing up a pipeline be a form of nonviolent protest? Director Daniel Goldhaber’s new film, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, makes a strong case in the affirmative — even if the activists at its center could care less about being called “terrorists” by the American empire.
The movie, which incorporates ideas from Andreas Malm’s nonfiction book of the same name, focuses on a group of environmental activists who unite to destroy a pipeline in West Texas. While the activists share a common mission, they differ from each other in countless ways: There are university students like Xochitl (played by Ariela Barer) and Shawn (Marcus Scribner), for instance, alongside a conservative landowner named Dwayne (Jake Weary). They all have disparate reasons for their disruption. For example, Michael (Forrest Goodluck) grew up on a North Dakota Reservation that was heavily affected by drilling from the oil industry, while Alisha (Jayme Lawson) has doubts about the group’s action, but begrudgingly assists them because her girlfriend Theo (Sasha Lane) is committed to the cause. Despite all their differences, they’re all united by a shared dread of the oil industry, whose expansion isn’t just hurting their own communities — it’s a behemoth actively killing the whole world.
Cleverly, this broadens the scope of the film’s central conflict: The environmental activists aren’t fighting a local battle against climate change; they’re participating in a worldwide war. Goldhaber portrays the crew’s actions as one of self-defense: survival against the machines that are actively killing them. There’s a propulsive sense of urgency as the crew goes about their plans; the violence of the oil industry isn’t a far-off reality, but something rooted in their blood-soaked present.
While watching the “well-oiled” team carry out their plans, I couldn’t help but think that the film’s thesis could be summed up as a remix of Matthew 7:3, where Jesus says, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Similarly, How to Blow Up a Pipeline asks: Why get mad about blowing up a pipeline when the oil industry is drilling into people’s lands and disrupting communities’ livelihoods?
Indeed, in the eyes of Xochitl and the rest of the crew, they are fighting against the very forces of death itself. Their motivation and actions echo a form of Christian nonviolence. In an interview with Sojourners, David Cramer, an Anabaptist pastor and theologian, and Myles Werntz, an ethicist and theologian at Abilene Christian University, talked about their 2022 book A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence. In the book, the two explain how Christian nonviolence can take many forms (that is, it’s doesn’t always look like turning the other cheek). One of the forms is “apocalyptic nonviolence.” Apocalyptic nonviolence is based on the idea that the “enemy … is death itself.” As outlined by Myles Werntz, “the aim of [apocalyptic] nonviolence is to extricate creation itself from the machinations of death that are operational in structures and the way that we think about the world.” In other words, if the is enemy death itself, then nonviolence must protect the sanctity of life by attacking the entities that bring about death. As Xochtil says, “structural damage … is kind of the point.”
Cramer and Werntz give an example of apocalyptic nonviolence in their book, and one that is no less incendiary. They share how on May 17, 1968, nine Catholic activists went to the Catonsville, Md., Selective Service Office and took and burned several hundred draft records. Werntz and Kramer wrote in the book, “In destroying implements of war—whether in the form of draft cards, armaments, or nuclear weapons—this approach began to confront the means of war more actively. Instead of lobbying or marching, this approach … emphasizes the conflict between Christ’s way of life and the world’s way of Death.”
I see echoes of this mindset in the tactics of the activists: When you destroy a death-dealer you aren’t enacting violence — you’re bringing about life.
While it can be easy to critique Xochitl and her crew’s methods as too Machiavellian with their ends-justify-the-means attitude, there is nuance in their enactment. They plan to blow up the pipeline on a hilltop to prevent the oil from leaking and ensure that there are no casualties.
Even within the group, there’s disagreement about the repercussions of their justice work. And the film uses those dissenting voices as an avenue to ask hard questions, like, even if the actions can be “nonviolent,” how do we deal with the fallout of property damage? This line of questioning comes through Alisha’s character. While the rest of the team agrees that collateral damage is acceptable because “sabotage is messy,” Alisha isn’t so sure. “Who is the collateral?” she fires back, questioning the goodness of the burn-it-all-down mentality. She fears that their actions could end up hurting the very communities they are seeking to protect — blue-collar workers and the marginalized. She questions whether they are actually mirroring the behavior of those in the oil industry: people who are acting as judge, jury, and executioner for people whose lives they don’t even see.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline positions the fight against climate change as a war for survival. Under such parameters, the film questions whether blowing up a pipeline is actually a form of nonviolence (the FBI certainly does not see it that way; it recently issued warnings that the film could inspire real life terrorism on pipelines … film distributor NEON proudly tweeted out in reply, “ The power of cinema ”). The film’s message embodies the wisdom of Ephesians 6:12, which says, “[O]ur struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Jesus had no problem flipping tables and uttering rebuke against those who turned his father’s temple into a marketplace; would he oppose blowing up a pipeline to stop those who profit from mass death? How to Blow Up a Pipeline captures the fire and angst of a generation that has become disillusioned with slow change. While it’s fair and good to beat swords into ploughshares, sometimes a beaten sword is its own reward.