–Tucker Mitchell

 

During the 1989 trial of a suspected serial killer in Italy known as the “Monster of Florence,” a key witness and possible accomplice to the crimes kept describing the accused men to whom he was being linked as “my picnicking friends.” The man’s insistence on this euphemism (whatever this bunch of ne’er do wells was doing in the dark in the Tuscan hills, it wasn’t picnicking) over and over turned it into a national joke in Italy. And the phrase, “they went on a picnic, (etc.)” became a new way of saying that someone was up sneaking around at some unethical, immoral, possibly illegal activity.

In America these days we call that hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Thanks to Gov. Mark “Sparky” Sanford of South Carolina, our phrase is a little more precise. Sanford, as you have probably heard, disappeared for a few days last month, having told aides he was going for a hike on the Appalachian Trail. In fact, he was in Argentina in the company of a woman with whom he was having an affair. As a result, “taking a hike,” which used to mean leaving in a hurry, is code for “fooling around.” Adding this phrase to our cultural lexicon (plus generating a little publicity for a forgotten gem of the park service) may wind up being Sanford’s legacy.

That probably isn’t where Sanford thought things would lead eight years ago when he first chatted up a pretty, Argentinean TV reporter/translator at a political function. It may be, as he has said, that he simply struck up a casual conversation and eventually, one thing led to another. “It began innocently enough,” said Sanford, “as I imagine most of these things do.”

Maybe. It also may be the case that he knew exactly what he was doing – flirting – without taking time to think about where that, um, trail might end. Whatever the case, Sanford’s political career is now in the crapper and it’s hard to imagine that his life in general is in a much better state.

Oh, well. Another powerful politician caught with his pants down in somebody else’s bedroom. In the past year we’ve had Senator Bob Ensign, Gov. Elliot Spitzer and former Senator John Edwards join this group, which makes it all seem like a new trend. In fact, it’s not. The list really goes back … well, as far as you’d want to go. Sen. Larry Craig (kind of an affair), Rep. Bob Livingston, President Bill Clinton, and Sen. Ted Kennedy. Old-timers may remember John Profumo, a member of Britain’s House of Commons, who’s 1963 liason with a prostitute helped sink his party’s government; or Arkansas Sen. Wilbur Mills, who was stopped by Washington, D.C. Park Police early one morning in 1972, drunk and in the company of a stripper (who, just to make things clear, him being from Arkansas and all, was not his wife).

The list, even when limited to just those who got caught, goes on in an infinite line. But it also runs in circles: Sen. Mills’ paramour was from that southernmost point on the Appalachian Trail … Argentina.

An easy question to ask, and one that’s been bandied about the late-night talk shows, is what is it about politics and power that leads so many in that business down this same, sordid path? There’s an interesting discussion threw, but most of us know that politicians do not have the market on infidelity cornered. Studies and surveys say that 22 percent of all married men (and 14 percent of married women) have a full-blown extramarital affair during their life and that half (45 percent of women, 55 percent of men) engage in extramarital sex at least once. This particular temptation, fueled by instinct and hormonal drive, is there for (almost) everyone. And if power really has something to do with it, then surely we can understand that (almost) everyone is in a position of power relative to someone else at some point in their life. Sleeping with the governor? That might be the lure for some women. Sleeping with the head of the department might good enough for someone else. The bottom line: sordid affairs are not the special domain of the high and mighty.

Bible teaching on adultery is crystal clear. It’s one of the Big 10, and for good reason. It breaks a sacred bond and rips lives apart, and it has done so since time began. The Book of Genesis is filled with story after story of God’s people “taking a hike.” In fact, that desire plays  a role in the very first stumble. A big part of the Adam and Eve story is awakening to sexual knowledge and an understanding of good and bad.

In the New Testament, Jesus used adultery as one the prime examples for his doctrine of following the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Not only is extramarital sex wrong, so is contemplating it. Why? Well, because that’s how we ought to look at all “law.” Consider what it’s really supposed to mean and act on that instead of searching for loopholes.

But a great wisdom teacher like Jesus also recognized the practical value in this idea. Adultery, like most sins, can best be stopped before it starts.

And where does it start? With a thought, a casual conversation, a little flirting.

With something innocent.

That’s how Mark Sanford understands it. That’s how he imagines most of these things start.

Sounds like he’s on the right trail, er, track.