At Union Seminary Richard decides to study Christian social ethics under Reinhold Niebuhr. In his first semester, Richard immediately audits a seminar being co-taught by John Bennett and Reinhold Niebuhr on “Christianity and Communism.” The seminar is prompted by the victory of the People’s Army of China in driving the Nationalist Army out of mainland China to Taiwan in 1949. Niebuhr shows his humility by bringing in outside speakers: overseas people, missionaries, and those with expertise in international affairs. During these years Niebuhr is invited by George Kennan to take part in State Department policy deliberations in Washington, D.C. Richard comes to appreciate the more measured approach of John Bennett in contrast to Niebuhr’s charismatic and exacting insights into world politics. Nevertheless, Richard is drawn to Niebuhr’s central insight into human sin as the pride in power, and to Niebuhr’s humanity as a New York Giants fan. In 1951, Niebuhr shares with Richard his theological response to Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.”
Born in 1925 in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan’s East Side, Richard grows up in a working class German-American family surrounded by immigrants from the now defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. Scenes of the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler in Germany, and anti-Semitic sentiment become etched in his memory. Richard receives an early political education from his Socialist cigar maker grandfather who emigrated from 1880s Germany, by hearing over-the-counter conversations about European politics at the butcher shop where Richard worked on Saturdays, from the Franciscan priest at the Hungarian parish where Richard made meat deliveries, and through his aunt Augusta Wagner, who in 1937 returned to Yorkville while on furlough from occupied China, where she was a professor of economics at Yenching College for Women in Peking.